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Martin Scorsese's "No Direction Home: Bob Dylan" starts off in Ken Burns territory, using a rich and exquisite mix of vintage sounds and images to track Robert Zimmerman of Hibbing, Minn., as he moves to New York and becomes folk singer Bob Dylan.
The documentary ends a half-decade later, with a speed-jacked-hollow-eyed Dylan rocking back and forth on a couch repetitively, as if he'd been dusted with autism. "Traitor!" they had yelled at him one too many nights. "I just want to go home," the shellshocked rock star moans.
Dylan's long search for a place to be looms large in Scorsese's compelling two-part film, which airs Monday and Tuesday on PBS stations. "No Direction Home" also has been released as a double-DVD set.
"I was born very far from where I'm supposed to be," Dylan says today, as the 3 1/2-hour documentary opens. "So maybe I'm on my way home."
Dylan acts as his own witness throughout -- at ease, clear, sometimes funny and seemingly pleased to take control of his legend, much as he was last year on "60 Minutes."
Other key interviewees include musicians Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Maria Muldaur and Al Kooper, as well as one-time ladyfriend Suze Rotolo and the folk-music promoter Harold Leventhal. Dylan's mentor Dave Van Ronk and the beat poet Allen Ginsberg were interviewed before their deaths.
The film's subtitle should be something like "Bob Dylan, 1960-65." The recorded output during the period stretches from the walkthrough debut album "Bob Dylan" (1962) to the titanic "Highway 61 Revisited" (1965).
"I don't feel like I had a past," Dylan says, but the assembled evidence proves otherwise. Part 1 unspools much like a video companion to Dylan's vastly entertaining biography "Chronicles, Volume One," which covers his years on the Greenwich Village folk scene, the epicenter of American hip in the early 1960s.
...Part 1 goes on to chronicle Dylan's rise to international stardom after signing with Columbia. The documentary's gentle rhythms turn propulsive as his early recordings annex the soundtrack. At first, industry wags dismissed Dylan as producer "John Hammond's folly," but most everyone got it, especially the college kids coming out of the 1950s looking for someone to follow.
"It's almost enough to make you believe in Jung's notion of collective unconscious," Van Ronk said. "If there is an American collective unconscious, Bobby had somehow tapped into it."
"No Direction Home" becomes a film by Martin Scorsese in its dark concluding act. Like the director's "Mean Streets" and "GoodFellas," it captures the paranoia and disintegration as the central character's life implodes.
As Scorsese and his collaborators spin the tale, Dylan's torments come solely as punishment for artistic metamorphosis -- the treasonous act of going electric after finding fame as a dutiful folk singer. "No Direction Home" sidesteps Dylan's chaotic personal life and drug use.
The artist faced a far-flung confederacy of dunces, Scorsese maintains: moronic reporters, abusive audiences, uncomprehending music lovers, petulant folkies, teenagers who shrieked, fawned and grabbed. No one seems to have any sense except for Dylan and his in-crowd.
...Part 2 leans on footage from the films "Don't Look Back," about Dylan's 1965 tour of Britain, and "Festival," which captured the shootout at Newport. Included are famous scenes such as the "Mr. Jones" confrontation with a British reporter and the seminal cue-card video for "Subterranean Homesick Blues."
...In the remarkable footage from Newport '65, Dylan jolts the folkies by enlisting Kooper and members of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band for a quick set of rock songs. The boos and catcalls compete with the amplified din. Dylan's freaked-out friend Seeger calls for an ax with which to cut the power cables, reports of which wound Dylan "like a dagger."
"I had no idea why they were booing," Dylan says today with a straight face. "Whatever it was about it wasn't about anything they were hearing." Accounts of that night don't add up, but it was hardly an ambush by Dylan: The rock album "Bringing It All Back Home" had been out for four months.
Booing Dylan became sport and populist performance art when he next toured, finishing the show with rock musicians. Sometimes Dylan would sass them back, playfully. Sometimes he would snarl. Of the backup band that became the Band, he says, "They were gallant knights for standing behind me."
And so on. I've got the ol' DVR set to record this one. When I'm done watching, I'll be sure to sass back.