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Scorsese zeros in, and Dylan opens up

Masterful film examines singer's transformation

As art and popular culture drift further and further apart, it's hard to remember there was once no iron curtain between the two. There was no decade in which the two traveled hand in hand like the 1960s. There has been no artist who united the two like Bob Dylan.

That fusion, and the jolt that resulted from Dylan plugging in his guitar, provides the fuel for Martin Scorsese's unmissable documentary, ''No Direction Home: Bob Dylan," coproduced by WNET's ''American Masters" and any number of other entities. PBS, though, gets the short end of the stick in terms of timing. The two-disc DVD comes out Tuesday, while the 207-minute film doesn't air on public television (minus a handful of expletives deleted by Channel 2) until Sept. 26 and Sept. 27. There are, however, only a handful of extras, mostly full-length television clips from the early '60s, that won't be on TV.

Scorsese has forever been fascinated by what makes certain men larger than life. From criminal bosses to Jake LaMotta, Howard Hughes, the Dalai Lama, and of course, Jesus Christ, Scorsese has been particularly adept at illustrating how the social forces of the times helped form these figures, even though they often appeared to stand outside of time.

He also knows a thing or two about popular music, having made ''The Last Waltz," the ''Feel Like Going Home" segment of the PBS documentary ''The Blues," which he also produced, and, lest we forget, Michael Jackson's ''Bad" video. Perhaps it's the credibility that Scorsese earned along the way that makes Dylan open up like he never has on camera as the film masterfully cuts between the present-day, surprisingly lucid Dylan and the refugee from Hibbing, Minn., who arrived in New York in 1961.

The end point is Dylan's controversial tour of England in 1966, when fans couldn't stand the fact that he was accompanied by the rock group that later became the Band. That followed his even more enraging appearance at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, at which Pete Seeger tried to cut off the electricity. There's sensational footage of both, Newport from Murray Lerner's ''Festival" and England from D.A. Pennebaker's film for ABC that the network didn't air.

Five years is a short time to focus on in the life of an artist, but what a five years. Dylan was lapping up every thing of value that he could find -- Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie, Robert Johnson, Martin Luther King, Jack Kerouac -- and transforming it into his own alternative history of the United States.

Scorsese brings that history to life with archival footage the way Henry Hampton brought the civil rights movement alive in ''Eyes on the Prize." In other words, this is PBS at its best -- thoughtful and focused but full of heart and soul. Dylan is particularly moving in the early part, talking about how getting a record player changed his life, how ''the sound of the record made me feel like I was somebody else, maybe not born to the right parents or something." Marlon Brando, James Dean, and Kerouac were stoking other fires in him.

Goodbye, chubby Robert Zimmerman; hello, way-cool Bob Dylan.

There is an alternative history of Dylan that has been in the wind for 40 years as well, that of an opportunist who stole from Guthrie, Dave Van Ronk, and everyone else with whom he came in contact, all in the pursuit of greater celebrity. While Van Ronk does tell a funny story in which he says Dylan ripped off his arrangement of ''House of the Rising Sun," Scorsese's interviews with Van Ronk, Liam Clancy, and other members of the Greenwich Village folk scene make it clear how Dylan, as a self-styled ''musical expeditionary," just kept outgrowing himself, like a child who kept getting too big for his clothes. By the time his first album came out in 1962, it was so been-there-done-that for him. A hard rain was already beginning to fall, and as folk singer Mark Spoelstra says, ''He was able to adopt a kind of theater about himself."

Looking back, Dylan is generous in his praise of Clancy, Joan Baez, and Seeger, but, like Miles Davis, he could never be limited by a movement, be it musical or political. Van Ronk says, ''We thought he was hopelessly politically naive," and then adds with a laugh, ''but in retrospect I think he may have been more sophisticated than we were."

He was creating his own mythology, lying to folk singer Oscar Brand in an interview about his background, and words started pouring out of him as if he were writing in tongues. By the time he gets to his masterpiece, ''Highway 61 Revisited," his producer Bob Johnston jokes that, ''I don't think Dylan had a lot to do with it. I think God, instead of touchin' him on the shoulder, he kicked him in the ass."

Meanwhile, it's enormous fun to see the present-day Dylan juxtaposed with the earlier man, full of the same half-winks and off-center charisma, older but wiser, still handsome, joking about his love for Baez, protesting about those who protested against him.

The second part focuses on Dylan's electric transition. Scorsese's perspective makes it easier to sympathize with the folkies' horror at the cacophony of the live performances even as the director, through the Lerner and Pennebaker clips, becomes transfixed by Dylan's transformation from folk hero to rock icon, songwriter to poet.

Scorsese misses some things here and there. One of the great revelations in Dylan's autobiography, ''Chronicles: Volume One," was what a profound influence the songs of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill had on him. Also, Scorsese takes Dylan's negation of his Minnesota years too much at face value. Dylan might not have felt very Jewish, but the rabbinical, sermonlike thrust of everything from ''A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" to ''Dignity" would lead you to believe that something was happening even if he didn't know what it was early in his life.

And what does make him so special ultimately after he lapped up all those influences? Was it the voice? The words? The attitude? For all that we learn, there is something ineffable about that masked man.

Maybe that's the way it is with all great artists. Johnston, who also produced many of Johnny Cash's records, says, ''I mean, he's got the Holy Spirit about him. You can look at him and tell that." Maybe that's as good an explanation as any. Until somebody does Dylan and Scorsese one better, it will most certainly do.

Ed Siegel can be reached at siegel@globe.com.

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