A star is born

The Ballets Russes debuted Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring in 1924, and its unusually discordant music and choreography sparked riots in the audience. America’s analogy to Stravinsky has to be Bob Dylan in the mid-1960s, when he embraced electric rock and toured Europe with a series of increasingly combative concerts.

It all started at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island with a performance caught in Murray Lerner’s indispensable concert documentary The Other Side of the Mirror—Bob Dylan Live at the Newport Folk Festival 1963–1965. Much of the footage is culled from Lerner’s 1967 Festival!, but by concentrating solely on Dylan’s three Newport appearances, Lerner captures the startling evolution of a musical artist.

We first see Dylan in 1963 as a charmingly awkward “protest singer,” shifting in his chair and dropping lines in the rolled-sleeves work shirt of a Dust Bowl union organizer. He delivered searing renditions of “Talkin’ World War III Blues” and “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” but had not yet achieved the incandescence of a star performer.

That had all changed by 1964, when Dylan reappeared at Newport with shaggier hair, stylish mod duds and a hypnotically assured stage presence. By 1965, Dylan was a superstar mobbed by zealous fans; the festival’s originators felt that his presence was beginning to eclipse everything and everyone else (one organizer tells Dylan to split after two songs because “we’re heading up another workshop”; that must have been some workshop!).

The legendary electric performance closes the film as Dylan and his band crank out propulsive versions of “Maggie’s Farm” and “Like a Rolling Stone” to a mixed response of boos, applause and general angry confusion. Dylan mollifies the crowd with an acoustic performance, but the artistic fuse had already been lit, and Lerner’s fly-on-the-wall film captures it.