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May 6, 2011

Movie Review: Bob Dylan Revealed (2011)

I have always been fascinated with Bob Dylan. Not that everything he has touched has been gold, but his work has always been unique, with no real compromises. Like Orson Welles (my other favorite iconic artist), he seems to me to have always been in search of something and never willing to repeat himself, no matter the risk or lack of rewards. So I was thrilled when this disk landed in my mailbox, courtesy of the secret underground known as Cinema Head Cheese.

Buy Bob Dylan Revealed on DVD!

Joel Gilbert is a Tennessee born musician and film maker who fronts the Dylan tribute band Highway 61. He seems to be utterly obsessed with all things Bob. This is his fourth feature-length documentary on the iconic singer/songwriter. I would have thought that between Martin Scorsese's three-hour-plus documentary and Todd Hayne's multi-starred episodic movie I'M NOT THERE we would have had the final word on the man. But Gilbert does manage to dig up some interesting nuggets in his well-edited, less-than-journalistic pastiche.

On the cover of the DVD is Dylan hovering over a chessboard, in deep thought about his next move. Gilbert uses the chessboard motif on his title graphics and the graphic for all the chapter headings which divide this documentary, I'm not quite sure why he chose to use the chess board motif so predominantly. Perhaps his point is that Dylan is constantly moving and examining every move he makes carefully. It's kind of an awkward metaphor, since a chess board implies a conscious strategy, and yet he clearly shows Dylan as a man ever searching.

The movie presents interviews with people who knew Dylan close up, like Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Scarlet Rivera, Mickey Jones and Rubin "Hurricane" Carter. These interviews are spiced up with all kinds of stock footage and backed by very Dylan-like instrumental tracks by Gilbert's band, Highway 61. Obviously they did not have the budget to license real Dylan music. The absence of hearing those songs during the course of this movie is one of its greatest failings. I was aching to hear the songs they were talking about.

One choice director Gilbert made seems particularly irresponsible. Most people remember when Dylan cancelled a tour because of his terrible motorcycle accident in which he allegedly broke his neck. The interviews in this section attempt to cast doubt on the voracity of the entire incident. Mickey Jones claims that he believes Dylan was tired, overworked and simply needed an excuse to get away and renew himself in private. However, director Gilbert labels this chapter “drug rehab,” while none of his supporting evidence claims that. If he has some other reason to believe this was the purpose of Dylan’s absence, he needs to present it. But to simply make that assumption, and to go so far as to present it as a fact, is worse than yellow journalism. It is the documentaries single biggest misstep, in this critic’s opinion.

The strangest chapter of Dylan’s ever-changing agenda is probably when, for a short time in the late eighties, he became a born again Christian. He produced a single album of preachy Christian folk-rock called “Slow Train Coming.” The songs on that album were, at their best (“When He Returns,” “Slow Train Coming”) achingly beautiful gospel tunes. But the period was short-lived, which was probably a relief to most of his fans. His next album, “Infidels,” told the opposite story, and, frankly, in my mind, was a weaker album.

Gilbert spends more time on born again chapter than anywhere else. Perhaps because, in a way, this chapter in Dylan's life is the most telling about his restless journey; and (ironically) most exemplifies his integrity as an artist. Dylan took the largest career risk imaginable, his only concern being for what he held as truth at that time.

The funniest clips of the movie come during the "Infidels" period, when Dylan turned to his native Judaism. He appears as a guest on a fund raiser TV special for Chabad. He looks very uncomfortable with Yarmulke on head, hawking contributions with the Rabi who is far less funny than he thinks he is.

What one walks away from this movie is a re-iteration that Dylan is a restless seeker who to this day has never found what he is looking for; and perhaps has even become resigned now that he never will. There is a bitterness in the over seventy Bob. Maybe in looking back he feels he could have not been quite so serious all the time, and maybe rested more. I have always admired Dylan, but for the first time I felt more pity than envy for his journey. It must get weary walking in his restless shoes.

1 comment:

  1. Good review. Saw this film last night and agree with almost all of what you said. The chess motif (with sound effects) was more annoying than illuminating, especially when everyone stresses his spontaneity and restlessness. The filmmaker seems to be something of a right-wing nutcase, on top of everything else.

    You could maybe give this another copy-edit, however. There's a bunch of stuff like this: "It is the documentaries single biggest misstep..." (Should be possessive, not plural, Ron.) And you need to write "born-again". etc. But very fair-minded piece, in any case.