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Dylan Looks Back in New Documentary

Inside the making of No Direction Home, Martin Scorsese's epic new Bob Dylan documentary

October 6, 2005
Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan
John Cohen/Getty Images

Sitting through a three-and-a-half-hour documentary about an ex-boyfriend isn't most women's idea of fun. But Bob Dylan's early girlfriend Suze Rotolo says she enjoyed No Direction Home, the new Martin Scorsese-directed Dylan film that includes a rare on-camera interview with her. ''It was nice because the movie did not perpetuate that god myth,'' says Rotolo, who inspired numerous Dylan songs and appears with him as a nineteen-year-old on the cover of 1963's The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. ''It wasn't a fan talking about someone they mythologize — it was coming from everybody's own story.''

The film, which airs September 26th and 27th on PBS and is also available on DVD, combines unearthed archival footage and fresh interviews — with the likes of Joan Baez, Dave Van Ronk, Pete Seeger and Dylan himself — to illuminate the first and most trailblazing part of Dylan's career, beginning with his Hibbing, Minnesota, childhood and ending with his 1966 Woodstock, New York, motorcycle accident. No Direction Home shows Dylan evolving at an unfathomable pace: In a span of just four years, he conquers the Greenwich Village folk scene, becomes the artistic voice of the civil-rights movement (Dylan is seen on the podium before Martin Luther King Jr.'s ''I have a dream'' speech) and then abandons it all to reinvent rock & roll with ''Like a Rolling Stone'' and everything that followed. ''It's an artist at the absolute peak of his talent,'' says Nigel Sinclair, one of the producers. ''The challenge was making a film worthy of the subject.''

The documentary also includes substantial amounts of unseen footage and unheard music, from a scratchy recording of Dylan's high school rock band to his 1965 screen test for Andy Warhol. Dylan fanatics will probably be most excited by the discovery of film shot onstage by documentarian D.A. Pennebaker on the famous night in 1966 when an angry folk fan yelled ''Judas!'' during a raging electric set by Dylan and the Band. Pennebaker's vivid, up-close color footage of that Manchester, England, concert serves as the film's climax. ''There wasn't a sense that this was some immortal thing,'' says Pennebaker, who was shooting the concert for the never-released film Eat the Document. The filmmakers found the long-lost scene last year in a pile of water-damaged film recovered from Dylan's vaults.

No Direction Home had an unusual genesis. Scorsese (whose best-known music film is the legendary 1978 Band documentary The Last Waltz) is credited as the director, but the project was in the works well before he came on board in 2001. Dylan's manager, Jeff Rosen, began conducting interviews with Dylan friends and associates (including poet Allen Ginsberg and folk musician Dave Van Ronk, both of whom have since passed away) around 1995, and he started gathering hundreds of hours of historical film footage even earlier. Dylan himself sat for ten hours of unusually relaxed and open conversation with Rosen in 2000; he even smiles when reminiscing about a couple of high school girlfriends. ''Both of those girls brought out the poet in me,'' he says.

Mickey Jones, who subbed for Band drummer Levon Helm on Dylan's 1966 tour, says, ''This is really Jeff's project that he's been working on for so many years, but it took Martin Scorsese to bring it to life.''

A source close to the production adds that Dylan himself had zero involvement with the project apart from the interview. ''He has no interest in this,'' the source says. ''Bob truly does not look back.''

Joan Baez's frank on-camera reminiscences — in which she details her disappointment when Dylan left politics behind — stand out. ''My manager told me, 'Why don't you get it out of your system and say whatever it is you have to say this one time,''' says Baez. ''I thought it could be valuable, instead of just gossip.''

The film steers clear of much of Dylan's private life, hewing closely to the template of his 2004 autobiography, Chronicles: Volume One, in which he never even mentions the names of his two former wives. The film never touches on Dylan's 1965 marriage to Sara Lowndes. It also fails to delve into Dylan's relationships with Rotolo and Baez, and it glosses over his mid-Sixties drugs use. Rotolo doesn't mind such omissions. ''People want too much,'' she says. ''It's far more seductive to reveal less, as [Dylan] has taught us.''

No members of the Band appear in the film, but drummer Mickey Jones fills in, calling the '66 tour with Dylan ''the defining musical experience'' of his life: ''When we used to kick into 'Tell Me, Momma,' everybody thought a 747 had landed.''

The film and its accompanying soundtrack, No Direction Home: The Bootleg Series Vol. 7, are packed with previously unheard studio outtakes and rare live tracks, including Dylan's first live electric performance: a thunderous ''Maggie's Farm,'' backed by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. ''It's raw — it's punk rock,'' says soundtrack producer and Legacy Recordings exec Steve Berkowitz, who helped create the first multi-track mix of the performance. ''There was nothing overdubbed, nothing changed. Everything in the soundtrack was mixed and mastered to sound like it sounded then.'' Even more challenging was a '66 performance of ''Ballad of a Thin Man,'' which had to be taken straight off a mono recording. ''It's totally distorto, but I love it,'' says Berkowitz. ''Talk about vérité — it's fucking perfect.''

This is a story from the October 6th, 2005 issue of Rolling Stone.

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