Martin Scorsese’s superb two-part documentary on the early phases of Bob Dylan’s career doesn’t solve all the great mysteries of that American musical icon’s life and character, but it does provide us with an exceptionally incisive and wide-ranging film portrait of the man. And Scorsese’s skill in both exploring and honoring those mysteries is a key factor in making this three-and-a-half hour film an unusually rewarding experience.
The film opens with Dylan speaking of his breakthrough period (1961-66) as a kind of odyssey, both musically and personally, and the film follows that “expeditionary” effort in chronological fashion while also ranging over a vast and at times dazzling array of performance footage, archival material and talking-head interviews. Filmed performances from mid-'60s tours of England when Dylan was making the then-controversial transition from acoustic to electric, from folk to rock, loom especially large in the proceedings, and Scorsese has scored the additional coup of getting the grizzled and famously reclusive wizard himself to talk, on camera, about the old days.
Interviews with folkie contemporaries like Joan Baez, Dave Van Ronk and Maria Muldaur—and with one-time girlfriends like Baez and Suzie Rotolo—provide some compelling moments of up-close-and-personal observation. But No Direction Home is never really in danger of lapsing into either tell-all biography or all-out hagiography. Instead we get a wealth of small anecdotes, smelly antidotes, limousine perorations, etc.
And as by-the-book biography comes to seem less and less desirable, Scorsese gets behind and ahead of the story, and weaves the 1965-66 performance footage into a kind spiraling blessing—or curse?—on the narrative material it chances to infect (musically and otherwise).
It’s left to the wiggie spirits on hand—Allen Ginsberg, Liam Clancy and a Nashville sound tech named Bob Johnston—to evoke the transcendent and/or the mystical and archetypal, whence Scorsese proceeds to select performance footage that offers perfect glimpses of the very qualities that Ginsberg and Clancy and others are calmly but insistently raving about.