[29 September 2006]
PopMatters General Features Editor
Picking up where Scorsese’s No Direction Home left off, this documentary purported to cover Dylan’s career from the legendary motorcycle crash in upstate New York in 1966 to his conversion to born-again Christianity at the end of 1978. But unlike Scorsese’s film—a big budget production made with the full cooperation of Dylan and his record label, with full access to a vast repository of archival materials—this DVD, made by the proprietors of Isis, a British Dylan fanzine, consists mainly of talking-head interviews shot with a digital video camera interspersed with more or less random shots of city streets in Greenwich Village and close-ups of old analog recorders spooling tape. Occasionally the filmmakers pan over some photographs of Dylan from the period, but for a documentary about the musician, we see shockingly little of him. No Direction Home featured rare and complete never-before-heard takes of Dylan performing his epochal ‘60s work; After the Crash doesn’t even feature his music at all (save for a few extremely brief film and TV clips). Instead, the incidental music is performed by a band appropriately called Dylanesque, who here do a pastiche of Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks sound.
Of course this comparison is unfair, but it’s one that the distributor has practically demanded based on the way the disc is being marketed as a sort of continuation, when really it’s closer to a semi-professional bootleg you might buy in an East Village record shop. In fact, the package carries this highly indicative warning label: “This DVD is not authorized by Bob Dylan, his managers, Columbia Records or any other companies associated with the release, publishing or ownership of Bob Dylan’s music.” So you shouldn’t come to this video expecting anything in the way of footage even up to the level of what you can acquire with a YouTube query. But if you are a Dylanophile who wants to watch other devotees discuss his ‘70s work, and you want to see interviews with the likes of Jacques Levy (who cowrote the songs on Desire), Scarlet Rivera (violinist on the same album) or Rob Stoner (the bassist and de facto bandleader on the Rolling Thunder Revue and the so-called Alimony tour of 1978), you might find this interesting.
The structure is strictly chronological, and this is unfortunate, because it leads to a parade of rather tedious interviews to begin things, mostly with British rock critics who by and large espouse the received wisdom about Dylan’s country turn on the series of albums from John Wesley Harding to New Morning. Especially excruciating are the interviews with the late Al Aronowitz, a journalist crony of Dylan’s, who seems to be in failing health and takes several excruciating moments to complete the most banal and unilluminating sentences. The filmmakers likely felt privileged to talk to him at all, and felt they had to use the footage even though it was a less than fruitful interview. The interview with self-proclaimed garbologist A.J. Weberman are a bit embarrassing, as he shows no shame in recounting how he rifled through Dylan’s trash and harassed the singer and menaced his family. He cheerfully admits to submitting to a beating at the hands of Dylan, as though this were a badge of honor, and then seems to expect we should admire him for not retaliating by breaking a bottle over Dylan’s head when he rode off on his cycle.
More compelling are the interviews with some of the musicians that worked with him. All of them paint a picture of Dylan as a spontaneous, unfussy worker in the studio, typically coming in with nothing but ideas in his head, then playing through what he has in mind for the session while the musicians scramble to keep up. Ron Cornelius, who played guitar on Self-Portrait and New Morning recounts banging out song after song with no preparation, speculating that Dylan’s method was deigned to force the session pros to trust their instincts. Eric Weissberg and Kevin Odegard, who played in the two different bands who backed Dylan for the Blood on the Tracks sessions, compare and contrast their experiences. (The critics here become especially unhelpful, incapable of doing anything more than repeating over and over again what a fine album it is.) Scarlet Rivera recounts her experience of having been plucked almost at random to work with Dylan on Desire—he happened to see her walking around the Village carrying a violin—and Jacques Levy (in his final interview—he died 2004) talks vaguely what it was like to write songs with Dylan. Best is Rob Stoner’s delicate discussion of how his disagreement with one of the backing vocalists who was “close” with Dylan got him fired from the world tour in 1978.
Ultimately, though, the documentary suffers from being at cross purposes with itself. Only a longtime Dylan fan will take away anything from the interviews with the musicians, yet the critics speak as though they are teaching total neophytes the basics about his career. Combined with the meandering aimlessness of some of the interviewees, this leads to a frustrating viewing experience that lasts longer than it seems to warrant.
The bonus features consist of screens of text detailing Dylan’s discography, including bootlegs from the period, and the Weberman tapes, which document a phone conversation he had with Dylan about Weberman’s stalking. These are all but illegible on a regular TV screen, perhaps they would be readable on a computer, where an Internet connection would obviate their usefulness.