I am not a child of the 1960?s, nor am I a child of children of the 60?s. If anything, I have always framed the 1960?s as a time of great social upheaval that included lots of victories and many losses, losses which ultimately lead to the rise of “me-generation” politics, the rise of Ronald Regan and our current conservative political crisis. Don?t get me wrong; the 1960?s produced some amazing art, an awesome film culture that I long for, and a transcontinental embrace of youth and creativity that has not been seen since. But as a child of the 1980?s, of American post-punk and the VCR, I have always seen the 1960?s in critical hindsight. I wasn?t there, and I am sure it was a lot of fun, but every former ?peace love and understanding? type I know is either a bitter self-serving snob or a full-on conservative. When I see flower children, I can only see what they have become, tainted by the knowledge that these people were exactly the types my generation, my small, unsung, unloved generation were rebelling against. If flower power can lead to Reganomics, if free love leads to a generation of broken homes and STD?s, what was so fucking great about the 1960s? On top of the reality of what became of the hippies and the youth revolution, add to it the massive idealization of the era by the baby boomer PR machine, and all I can see is a tragedy being paraded as the apotheosis of human civilization by a bunch of self-loving hypocrites. What can I say? I?m not a fan.
So, it was extremely surprising to me to feel the exact opposite of my usual bitterness while wrapping up this year?s Toronto Film Festival with Martin Scorsese?s excellent and frustrating No Direction Home: Bob Dylan. If there were ever a symbol of the 1960?s values, it?s the ?voice of his generation?, Bob Dylan. His music has become iconic and his nasal, talky sing-song voice is instantly recognizable; there is no one quite like him. I?ve always viewed Dylan?s music as the type of folky, earnest, poetry-laden music that punk rock was invented to erase. Scorsese?s film has revolutionized my idea of Dylan (which was obviously wrong) and could go a long way toward turning young people on to an artist whose own struggles with his generation, with the bizarre expectations and responsibilities of being a protest singer in the heady days of great social change, and with his radical decision to follow his own muse and plug his guitar into an amplifier illuminated the essential conformity of the non-conformist movement. Scorsese?s film is divided into two halves; the first details the early biography of Dylan and his move to the Greenwich Village folk scene of the very early 1960?s as a devotee of the late Woody Guthrie, the second half tracks Dylan?s iconic rise to folk music fame and his infamous (and absolutely great) three song set at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival where, for the first time, he played an electric guitar with a band.
Dylan Becomes Electric: Newport, 1965
There are glaring omissions in the film, including a real lack of forthcoming self-analysis from Dylan himself, who often speaks in metaphor and is evasive of personal issues. There is a small discussion of Dylan?s relationship with Joan Baez, but no discussion of feelings or details from either. There is a lot of footage from the time where Dylan looks strung out, clearly using alcohol or drugs, but no mention of Dylan?s use. There is also a real lack of analysis of the film?s fulcrum; Dylan?s decision to plug-in and rock out. The way the film tells it, the pressures of the folk scene, which Dylan effectively buried at Newport, allowed him to think of and frame blues music with electric instruments as an almost natural progression from acoustic folk music. However, there is a clear mischievous gleam in his eye as, night after night on a tour of Europe, rabid folk music fans boo him, call him ?Judas? and ?traitor? and journalists question his reasons for changing. Scorsese illuminates the conflict by way of some excellent performance footage, letting the excellence of the music underscore the bravery of performances that, time and again, are loudly rejected by the audience they were intended to entertain. You can see the hurt on Dylan?s face as he bravely soldiers on, raising the volume night after night, putting his songs and his vision in his audience?s face but in retrospect, Dylan still doesn?t seem to understand it. ?They weren?t booing the music,? he says. ?They weren?t booing anything they were hearing.? In fact, Scorsese uses the controversy over Dylan?s electric decision to expose a deep orthodoxy in the free love crowd; Pete Seeger, that liberal bastion of freedom and justice, was so outraged by Dylan?s Newport set, he still talks of wishing he could have found a saw to cut the power to the stage. They weren?t booing the music. They were booing change.
Scorsese ends the film in 1966, at the precise moment after Dylan has suffered a motorcycle accident and will not tour again for eight years, and so the film is really about Dylan?s six year rise from coffee shop protest singer to iconic voice of a generation to disillusioned artist who has earned the right to experiment and create, only to be labeled an outsider once again. As such, it is a rich portrait of an artist who struggles against all attempts to pigeonhole and stereotype him. Dylan has gone on to create music for another 40 years, to continue to experiment, succeed, fail, but always with a great deal of integrity. Ok, so let’s not count The Traveling Willburys. But still, there is an enormous amount of material that remains unspoken, that is, the majority of Dylan?s creative life. And so ultimately, like the responses to his work, No Direction Home: Bob Dylan is not really about Dylan at all. It is about Dylan?s role as a generational totem to which dreams and identities were pinned and his personal encapsulation of the disillusionment of the 1960?s. Sure, it was 1966 when Dylan had had enough but, as in most everything Dylan has done, it took America almost ten years to catch up to him. Scorsese knows this as well as anyone, and No Direction Home: Bob Dylan not only celebrates a misunderstood artist, but forecasts the coming implosion that would manifest itself in the 1970?s ?me generation?. It is no small irony that Dylan?s song ?Like a Rolling Stone? featured prominently in his downfall. How does it feel? Kill your heroes, indeed