In the interview with filmmaker Murray Lerner included as an extra on the DVD release Bob Dylan: The Other Side of the Mirror: Live at the Newport Folk Festival 1963-1965, the director mentions the importance of juxtaposition and montage to his aesthetic—how two images edited together can individuate a third idea or concept that carries a unique, discrete charge all its own.
This is exemplified with particular force in the film’s opening. Though the film proper moves chronologically from 1963 to 1965, it begins with a brief clip of ’65 Dylan, singing “All I Really Want to Do”. Dylan looks sharp, shrewd, slightly amused, and a little high. Mid-song, the film cuts abruptly to 1963, and the effect is jarring.
How did this skinny, skittish Midwestern hick, flat-pickin’ in a pavilion, become the knowing, self-assured rock star we just saw? And in two years? That 1965/1963 cut signifies perfectly the sense of shock and/or awe that must have been felt at the Newport Folk Festival. Nowadays it may be hard to understand what was so exciting and mystifying and maddening about “Bobby Dylan” back then, but that cut says it all, and is just as important as the images it sutures.
Honestly, I’ve always felt, to hell with the folkies, and thank God for drugs, the Beats, pop music, or whatever else it was drove Dylan from Maggie’s Farm. But now I understand what a keen loss it was, and I feel for all these poor Folks. Early on in the film, Dylan is introduced by a festival emcee, “You know him, he’s yours”, but of course, it turned out, they didn’t and he wasn’t.
The film showcases several songs from each year, both from the festival’s daytime workshops and nighttime concerts, and the music is often as startling as Dylan’s physical and charismatic alterations.
It begins in a daytime workshop with “North Country Blues”, traditional down to the voice, which sounds too old for the face it comes from. If you’re able to take your eyes off Dylan, it’s fun to watch the background people, from stoic old folkies named “Doc” to gawking kids nudging each other as if to say, “Get a load of this guy.”
Joan Baez joins him for a sit-down workshop of “With God on Our Side”, looking lean and cool, and actually projecting more stage presence than Dylan himself at this point. In another of Lerner’s illuminating edits, the film cuts halfway through the song to a nighttime performance of its second half, and one becomes aware of the beauty of the film itself—its stark yet sumptuous use of the black-and-white film stock, and light and darkness, and cool crisp shadows. It’s a document that looks good enough to eat.
For “Talkin’ World War III Blues”, Dylan is introduced as having his “finger on the pulse of our generation.” No doubt it’s the same finger he’ll later use to flip his generation off, but here he still belongs.
To prove it, two of his most topical songs follow, “Who Killed Davey Moore?” and “Only a Pawn in Their Game”. In his recent book The Ballad of Bob Dylan: A Portrait, excerpted on PopMatters, author Daniel Mark Epstein points out how in “Davey Moore”, the players (the boxing commission, the boxer, the audience) exonerate themselves, while in “Only a Pawn”, a more definite, scathing and pointed attack, it is Dylan who does the exculpating. Yet the pissed-off look in Dylan’s eyes makes it clear he’s not selling any alibis, nor buying anyone else’s either. Both songs are take-no-prisoner’s performances.
The 1963 section ends with an all-star sing-along of Dylan’s anthem “Blowin’ In The Wind”, with Baez, Pete Seeger, Peter, Paul and Mary and the Freedom Singers. Dylan is drowned-out and over-powered, looking, as he crosses his arms, holds hands and smirks, like the one freak link in an otherwise grave chain.
By 1964, there were no more sing-alongs. “Mr. Tambourine Man” may be catchy as hell, and the crowd hangs on to every word, or tries to, but it’s hard to keep up with lines like, “You might hear laughin’, spinnin’, swingin’ madly across the sun” or “I know that evening’s empire has returned into sand”, especially when Dylan sings them. Lerner’s placement of the performance in the film is like a line in the sand, over which Dylan will never cross back.
After a too-brief killer snippet of Johnny Cash, at his most gaunt and haunted and leanest and meanest, performing “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright”, Baez and Dylan do a funny, ironic version of “It Ain’t Me, Babe”, with Baez giving as good as she gets, and “With God On Our Side” again, where Dylan dominates, his voice more powerful, his presence and charisma overtaking that of the still-formidable Baez. Inevitably, she shrank as he grew.
One of Lerner’s finest juxtapositions occurs as he cuts from the above to “Chimes Of Freedom”, by far the film’s highlight. The festival lighting is minimal, and intermittent flashbulbs illuminate Dylan in the blackness as he belts out, with a kind of piercing self-amusement and abandon, the rhythmic beats of those fierce bewildering pentameters, if that’s what they are: “Through the MAD, MYSTIC HAMMering/of the WILD RIPping HAIL/The SKY CRACKED its POEMS in NAked WONder”. To top it off, he moves his head like a Beatle, even resembling Paul for a split second.
Of course, come 1965 Dylan was arguably bigger than the Beatles and Jesus combined. In his liner notes to the DVD, Grammy Award winner Tom Piazza touches on how even Dylan didn’t escape the sphere of the Fab’s influence. He traded his loafers and dungarees for static-electric-bedhead hair, an undersized suitjacket, and needle-sharp Beatle boots.
He looks like a released switchblade. No wonder the Folks felt threatened. Amusedly aloof, visibly impatient, and obviously high, he comes off both wise and wiseass as he yodels deviously, “All I really want to do-OO is, baby, be friends with you”. Baby, don’t you believe it.
Again, the Beatles influence, or early rock ‘n’ roll anyway, is evident in the simplified lyric of “If You Gotta Go, Go Now”, as far from topical as you can get, unless “topical” refers to flesh; and the hooky “Love Minus Zero/No Limit”, the only fractional love song, which Dylan always seems to invest with a special kind of beauty. No exception here.
Lerner inserts an amusing clip of some bitter kids, future yippies no doubt, turning on their “Bobby” because of his stardom, which to them meant defection or, worse, apostasy. “He’s part of your establishment,” one boy says derisively, “…who needs him?” What those kids didn’t realize at the time was that Dylan’s celebrity actually liberated him from an establishment—the Folk Establishment.
Appropriately, the film’s first electric performance is “Maggie’s Farm”, Dylan’s kiss-off to that Acoustic Elite. The song says plenty, but Dylan’s look and attitude say more. With his leather jacket, Fender Stratocaster, and deadly Zen indifference he’s the opposite, in all ways, of the standard, earnestly engaged political folk singer sacrificing himself for the collective goodwill of the People. He looks more like a classic juvenile delinquent, definitely the Leader of the Pack (In the extras interview Lerner recalls him looking like “an almost frightening, ominous high priest”). Michael Bloomfield’s guitar, wailing though it is, is no match for Dylan’s high-range harangue. All this elicits the first boos of the film.
After a comparatively listless version of “Like a Rolling Stone”, Dylan is pressured back to the acoustic guitar for a tonally rich “Mr. Tambourine Man” and the film’s only fitting end, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”, a devastating, perfectly hate-modulated and dynamic send-off: That’s all, Folks.
The film is as stark and bold as its subject. Lerner lets the images speak for themselves, but it is his sequencing and editing of the footage that makes it such a fascinating document. I watched it wearing headphones and, let me tell you, the combination of the emphatic black and white and that “thin, wild mercury” voice (to use Dylan’s own description) pouring straight into my ears like that of the ghost of Hamlet’s father, gave me a strong sense of the thousand-volt shocks those at Newport were heir to.
There’s only one extra, but it’s good: the interview with a very learned Murray Lerner, touching on everything from Sergei Eisenstein’s 1929 essay “The Cinematographic Principle and the Ideogram” to T. S. Eliot’s “objective correlative”, both of which provide foundational keys for interpreting the film or just watching it.