In the 2005 documentary No Direction Home, a reporter asks a young Bob Dylan why he’s begun separating himself from the ‘60s folk establishment. The songwriter responds, “Bein’ pressed and hammered and, uh, bein’ expected to answer questions. It’s enough to make anybody sick, really.” He hated standing for something bigger than himself, and was glad to trade his old protest songs for imagist poetry set against gritty electric guitars.
But Dylan would never be able to disentangle himself from that part of American history, the expanding conflict in Vietnam and the civil rights struggle to which his music was an important part of the soundtrack. His career had been born of that era, and in the opinion of some critics, the era had been born of his music. Today, more than 40 years and 28 studio albums later (some of them disappointing, some legendary), Dylan is still widely remembered for the body of work he produced when he was the face of the folk subculture.
Without offering much in the way of context, The Other Side of the Mirror makes a three act play of Dylan’s much talked about trio of appearances at the Newport Folk Festival. In 1963, a nervous and at times bumbling Dylan headlines the festival for the first time and is greeted as a hero. In 1964, as the liner notes point out, a decidedly older and cockier Dylan sings his protest songs with the half-smirk of a man who has already begun to hear the words as illusory. And in 1965, when he appears at the same festival an entirely changed man and performer, he is met with an overwhelming cacophony of hisses, boos and, somewhere among it all, cheers.
By any account, that first electric performance, his last appearance at the Newport Folk Festival until 2002, marked a major change for both Dylan and the folk establishment, which had adopted him as its own personal mascot. It was the beginning of an end, for a year later, after a motorcycle accident near Woodstock, New York; he would quit touring and not return to the road for almost eight years. But it was also the start of a different and remarkably prolific career. Even today, the electric guitar wielding Dylan continues to perform and record albums, the most recent of which, 2006’s Modern Times, has been met with nearly universal praise.
Director Murray Lerner mostly keeps his hand out of the story, his idea being that Dylan’s music ought for once to speak for itself on film. His directorial voice is really evident only once when he cuts from footage of the 1964 daytime show to the nighttime main stage performance of the same anti-war song, “With God on Our Side”, a duet between Dylan and singer Joan Baez. It’s as though time itself is passing and the song’s significance is slowly slipping out from under it, a detail to which only a project of such narrow scope could draw attention.
Lerner had a lot of chutzpah to revisit this period of Dylan’s career so soon after Martin Scorsese’s excellent documentary No Direction Home, which also traces Dylan’s unpredictable journey from young folk star to the man behind 1965’s unapologetically electric Highway 61 Revisited. But while Scorsese’s film takes a broad look at Dylan’s roots and the world around him, Lerner is interested only in the image Dylan projects onstage. These three particular days in his life are to be held in the hand and observed like a gem. As the liner notes put it, The Other Side of the Mirror is a “document”, a standalone piece of evidence.
The careful study of these concerts yields a fascinating experience even if you won’t learn anything you didn’t already know about the man. For every year that passed, Dylan grew three years more haggard looking, and you could see the growing disillusionment on his face. It tells the same story we all know, but from a microscopically specific point of view that allows the die hard Dylan fan to say once again, as if it were the first time. Yes, this is a fascinating character.