One of Bob Dylan's most remarkable qualities is his ability to hold onto the essential enigma of Dylan-dom. He can star in baffling movies, release chatty memoirs, even lend his songs and image to a stupid lingerie ad, and still the essential mystery of what made a restless kid named Robert Zimmerman into the American icon Bob Dylan remains untouched. If Martin Scorsese ever had any intention of getting to the bottom of it with his three-and-a-half-hour documentary No Direction Home, it didn't work out, but that doesn't make the film any less extraordinary.
Focusing on the eventful years between Dylan's time playing in Minnesota rock 'n' roll bands in the late '50s through his motorcycle accident in 1966, No Direction Home features plenty of revealing archival footage and frank interviews with Dylan (conducted by longtime associate Jeff Rosen) and those who knew him then. Most remarkably, it's been sculpted into a Scorsese movie. Like Goodfellas, Raging Bull, and The Aviator, it's a story about the way the times shape people, and the way people sometimes push back, at least for a while.
On more than one occasion, Dylan suggests that although he came from Hibbing, Minnesota, he didn't belong to it; Scorsese's film accordingly puts a lot of emphasis on the American potential for self-invention and the sadness that can come with that achievement. Remaking himself as a dusty Woody Guthrie impersonator, then later as the finest product of the New York folk scene, and later still as a visionary of the blues-drenched rock and grab-bag Americana to come, Dylan alternately pleased and confounded his admirers. The film keeps returning to D.A. Pennebaker's footage of Dylan's landmark 1966 British tour—the one that had fans hissing and shouting "Judas" at the appearance of his electric backing players, who were later to become The Band. Outside the theater, bespectacled British fans express their sense of betrayal at Dylan's seeming abandonment of topical protest music. But they were looking for a Dylan who was already gone.
No Direction Home isn't entirely unsympathetic to their sense of loss. The title is no accident, nor are the links between Dylan's shift from clear-eyed political activism, the death of JFK, and the collapse of the national optimism that believed a song sung loud and long enough could change hearts. Scorsese's admiration for Dylan's music was evident long before he made this film, but he doesn't shy away from the notion that Dylan's success came with consequences. Between playing songs of doubt, disillusion, disappointment, and garden-variety befuddlement at maximum volume, Dylan looks overwhelmed and strung-out in the 1966 footage, although drugs get no mention. (Curiously, neither does his wife Sara.) If he hasn't lost his soul à la Henry Hill or Jake LaMotta, he's at least lost his way. Of course, he wasn't the only one feeling that way at the time. He just supplied the soundtrack.