No Direction, great directing
There are a few things a musical bio-documentary ought to do well. It should catch the arc of the musical life at hand and focus on it. It should show, rather than just talk about, the key moments and salient points as much as possible, especially the key music. And when, as seems to be inevitable, the talking heads must be brought in, they need to be the right people with something fresh and pointed to say, preferably with real connections to the story at hand. Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (Paramount Home Entertainment) does all of those things about as well as anybody has done them.
The two-DVD epic hones in on Dylan’s career and life through mid-1966, as he reached — liking it and not — the height of the frenzy and controversy circling around him as some previously unknown, ambitious sort of rock star and (as Bob puts it in a new interview) “musical expeditionary,” moving out broadly from his temporary stop as crowned king of the commercial folk world. A hoard of terrific, previously unseen performance footage — outtakes from D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back and Eat The Document films and from Murray Lerner’s Newport film Festival, plus some long-unseen 1960s TV performances — is at the heart of the material Scorsese has so artfully assembled, along with commentary from articulate, close participant-observers such as Allen Ginsberg and Dave Van Ronk.
The art is in the editing choices (and with documentaries, it nearly always is). Scorsese is a master of this stuff. If Ginsberg says Dylan’s brilliance as a singer begins with the way he focuses his meanings through breath control, a clip follows that can make even those least taken with Bob’s approach see what it is. There’s more full-color, fine sound examples of Dylan performing with The Band, folk Bob at Newport, and so on, than has been seen by even avid film collectors before — and if you’ve never seen the man at this peak, now is the time.
All of the recent two-part PBS and BBC telecast is included, plus — and this is a model for any DVD documentary release — additional uninterrupted versions of some of the best Bob performances. There could be quibbles with how hard-hitting the look at Dylan’s ambitions and career strategies was; and you’d not know from the film that the guy was married, and barely know that he had Blonde On Blonde on the charts as the film ends. But this is what you’d hope a documentary on Dylan (after so many lame ones) would be. We can only hope that Scorsese will be entrusted with more of the archive material; a second volume that would move from the Woodstock and Nashville years through the mid-’70s Rolling Thunder Revue era will be in order!
On top of that release comes a perfect companion, after decades MIA — the aforementioned Festival (Eagle Eye Media), Murray Lerner’s original, groundbreaking chronicle of the Newport Folk Festival from 1963-66. In its innovative marriage of the scene and sociology around the fest, and integration of fine performance footage, this little-seen documentary set the model for the Monterey Pop and Woodstock films that followed. Anybody who believes the ’60s folk scene was some laughable “Kumbayah” campfire version of what A Mighty Wind toyed with needs to see this. But then, since it includes prime performances from Howlin’ Wolf and Johnny Cash, Son House and the Osborne Brothers, old time fiddler Eck Robertson, Mississippi John Hurt, Mike Bloomfield with Paul Butterfield, Sacred Harp singers — and, of course, Dylan going electric, Donovan, the Staple Singers, Richard Farina and other stars of that moment, in prime form, all in the same place — you’ll no doubt want to.
And then there’s The Carter Family: Will The Circle Be Unbroken (Paramount/American Experience), Kathy Conkwright’s PBS bio-doc on the original Carters — A.P., Sara and Maybelle. The film is notable for its focus on the original Carters as they were: early pro-country singers and arrangers, careerists, not “folk,” and not just a precursor for the Johnny and June story either. I have to mention that I’m one of the talking-head commentators on this one; I trust that that visual shock will not turn you away from an often engaging, surprising film.
Let It Rock (Eagle Vision), filmed at a 1995 Toronto show celebrating rockabilly great Ronnie Hawkins’ 60th birthday, is one pleasurable and often memorable concert movie. It brings together, as one roots-rock supergroup, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson and Rick Danko (from the Hawks that Dylan took away from Hawkins), with — get this — Jerry Lee Lewis on keyboards and Carl Perkins on guitar, doing the tunes of all involved with one heck of a rolling rhythm.
A less successful new release is the British-derived musical documentary Inside Creedence Clearwater Revival: A Critical Review With Stu Cook (Music Reviews Ltd.), which fails on most all of the counts laid out at the top of this column. The best footage comes from scenes taken off some bad print of the 1970 Creedence TV documentary built around their Oakland concert (and that should be released clean and extended); and all numbers, often turned to for no specific point, are interrupted. Most of the talking heads have nothing to do with the band at all and have little to say about it (they used simple chords, y’know!), and Creedence bassist Cook, whose interview is supposed to justify the outing, turns out not to have much to say either. It’s an attempted look at this great band’s music without John Fogerty’s participation; nuff said.
For a loud and worthwhile evening of rock blues, you could well start with The Black Keys Live (Fat Possum), which captures the Akron, Ohio, twosome at an Australian show last year. They let scream the idiosyncratic but funky drum and lead guitar mash they tend to call rock, not blues, as well as anybody right now — but they cover Junior Kimbrough and Robert Pete Williams here, not just Iggy, and they’re on Fat Possum, and everybody knows this is blues rock. For comparing their classic (some may say “familiar”) riffs and turns against predecessors in a cross-generational cutting contest, it’s possible to watch this one along with the new DVD release of Cream: Farewell Concert (Image Entertainment). Before there were duos, there were the trios! Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker were not getting along so well by the time of this last show at the Albert Hall in November ’68, but they were playing like aces. The sound is not great by current standards, and you probably need to skip the “Toad” drum solo, but these were some screaming live blues rockers at the time.
Other new DVD releases of interest:
Austin City Limits Music Festival (Rhino) offers up one-performance-per-act highlights of the 2004 Austin fest on two discs, and features 24 acts, including My Morning Jacket, the Old 97s, the Drive-By Truckers, Rosanne Cash, Shelby Lynne, and the Pixies. Mainly captured in broad daylight, with crane shots and the like.
Dreaming In America (Liberty & Lament) tracks the lives and music of Memphis roots-rock band Lucero, guys who are good to spend time with. Apparently, they don’t have much money to spend themselves.
The Right Spectacle: The Very Best Of Elvis Costello Videos (Rhino) delivers 27 songs as advertised, all the way back, including country turns unseen in the U.S. — plus a terrific selection of early TV appearances by Elvis with the Attractions, skinny ties and bumping kneecaps included.
Permanent Record: Violent Femmes (Rhino) pairs a 1991 Norfolk, Virginia, live show with a collection of videos, roots and rock both showing.
The Dick Cavett Show Ray Charles Collection (Shout! Factory) brings back three Cavett episodes featuring swell Brother Ray renditions of “Born To Lose”, “I Can’t Stop Loving You”, Sam Cooke’s “Shake” and “Eleanor Rigby”, plus fascinating dialogue between Charles and a doctor who was working on restoring hearing to the deaf.