EW's guide to Bob Dylan's greatest hits and misses. From the peak of ''Blonde on Blonde'' to the valley of ''Self-Portrait'' and most everything else in between
At this year’s Telluride Film Festival, only one flick requires a mid-movie break: the world premiere of No Direction Home, Martin Scorsese’s three-and-a-half-hour documentary focusing on the first six world-rattling years of Bob Dylan’s career. ”You know what movie this reminds me of?” says 48 Hours screenwriter Larry Gross, accosting author and screening host Greil Marcus during the intermission. ”Lawrence of Arabia! Because he’s somebody who’s invented himself out of whole cloth. He doesn’t simply pass through the age, he enacts it.”
Whether No Direction Home — which comes out on DVD Sept. 20 and airs on PBS Sept. 26-27 — belongs alongside David Lean’s epic biopic is debatable, but this much is sure: Thanks to the film’s stunning archival footage, revealing new interviews, and surprising narrative focus, Dylan fans are ranking Scorsese’s documentary right up there with A Hard Day’s Night, Woodstock, and the earlier Dylan doc Don’t Look Back as one of the great rock movies. September is proving to be a good month for Dylanites, with a pair of new archival CDs also causing a stir. Released Aug. 30 and sold in Starbucks, Live at the Gaslight 1962 is a snapshot of an early performance. More substantially, a two-disc No Direction soundtrack, which boasts 26 previously unreleased tracks, also came out Aug. 30.
The idea of a Dylan doc was first floated 20 years ago, but it wasn’t until the late ’90s that Dylan manager Jeff Rosen started conducting interviews for the project. When Scorsese signed on in 2001, he inherited a ton of raw footage. ”Because Dylan is such a powerful figure,” says producer Nigel Sinclair, ”we wanted a documentary filmmaker whose power was equal to that. Marty went to the material and found the story.” The resulting film is likely to send new fans racing to stock up on Dylan CDs. But what they find in stores — a baffling catalog four decades in the making — might prove overwhelming. So before you go, check out EW’s guide to the bard’s many incarnations.
FOR THE TOTAL BEGINNER
The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963)
This is where it all really starts. On his second album, Dylan goes from Woody Guthrie wannabe to his own man, wise beyond his years. With ”Blowin’ in the Wind,” ”A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” and the truth-to-power indictment ”Masters of War,” he turns protest into poetry.
Bringing It All Back Home (1965)
How fitting that the album where Dylan goes electric also turned him into a lightning rod, inciting the fury of folk purists. From the opening honky-tonk scat of ”Subterranean Homesick Blues,” Dylan conjures astonishing images and bends words with the might of a circus strongman.
Highway 61 Revisited (1965)
This is Dylan at his creative peak — a time when he seemed to be redefining music every few weeks. Kicking off with the monumental ”Like a Rolling Stone,” the album never lets up. ”I’m not going to be able to make a record better than that one,” Dylan said later. Well, at least not for nine months…
Blonde on Blonde (1966)
For Dylan’s third masterpiece in just over a year (this one a two-record set), he packed up his harmonica and headed to Nashville, where he feverishly dashed off surreal lyrics in his hotel room like a mad prophet channeling the divine. ”Visions of Johanna” just might be his finest moment.
Blood on the Tracks (1975)
Written during the bust-up of his marriage to Sara Lowndes, Blood is what they call turning lemons into lemonade. At turns stung, disgusted, regretful, and relieved, this is the brutal, brilliant kiss-off every heartbroken lover wishes he could dedicate to his ex.
Time Out of Mind (1997)
Death-rattle lyrics and a dog-tired growl — not to mention great songs and spooky production from Daniel Lanois — make this umpteenth comeback sound like an aging man narrowly outrunning the hellhounds on his tail.
No Direction Home DVD (2005)
For a casual fan, hearing that a Dylan documentary is three and a half hours — and, oh yeah, doesn’t cover the last 39 years — might sound daunting. It isn’t. The archival footage is stunning, the assorted talking heads candid and funny. Plus, in extensive new interviews Dylan reinvents himself yet again: as a lucid, non-mumbling, un-cryptic, normal guy!
BOOK: Keys to the Rain: The Definitive Bob Dylan Encyclopedia, by Oliver Trager (2004)
More Dylan info than you could possibly ever need, which is exactly the right amount. Exhaustively geekish entries on all of Dylan’s albums and ”more than 700 songs,” mercifully served up without the obnoxious, hipper-than-thou ‘tude of a vinyl snob.