The most disappointing thing about Joel Gilbert’s documentary Dylan Revealed now available on DVD in time for Dylan’s 70th birthday is that in all of its 110 minutes there isn’t even one sample of the man singing, let alone a complete song. There is plenty of concert footage, but it is always film accompanied by talking head voiceover rather than the music. When there is music, it seems from the credits to be the music of a tribute band.
While a documentary about a musician that fails to include the man’s music may not make a lot of sense, what the film does have is a lot of film from the singer’s long career that it claims has never been seen before. Unfortunately the quality of much of this film is not always up to par. More often than not, it is taken from home movies shot by amateurs. For example there is film of Dylan on his 1966 Electric World Tour which was taken by drummer Mickey Jones who does the bulk of the narration about this period of Dylan’s career. In the first half of the concerts Dylan would do an acoustic set, and Jones would go out and film from the audience. He’d get one of the roadies to film the second half when he was on stage. This is supplemented by film of Dylan and his entourage as they travel from country to country. Some of it is interesting, but after awhile it’s like watching your brother-in-law’s vacation movies. I mean “Bob Dylan visits Elsinore” and D. A. Pennebaker in and out of his top hat leave something to be desired.
The film is less a biography than it is a look at various more or less significant moments in the singer’s career, although by no means all significant moments. It begins in 1962 with his Columbia recording contract, the dismal sales of his early recordings, and the problems this caused for legendary producer John Hammond. It jumps ahead to the Dylan goes electric period, and essentially makes the point that those who think he was selling out for the money are wrong. In fact, the poor reception his electric sets got from audiences cost him fans and money. Mickey Jones describes the cat calls and booing that greeted the electric portion of the concerts, a description that has been echoed recently by Robbie Robertson as he makes the talk show rounds in support of his new album.
Other aspects of Dylan’s career that get major attention are his Rolling Thunder Revue Tour, his support of Reuben ‘Hurricane’ Carter, his born again period and his return to his Jewish heritage. And although the documentary’s title seems to indicate that there are revelations in store for the viewer, I don’t know that there is a whole lot that is new here. Clearly Dylan’s preaching from the stage after his Christian conversion rubbed many concert goers the wrong way. As critic, Joe Selvin, points out, his audiences expected something quite different from him. If this conversion didn’t last very long, those people who discuss it seem to feel it was an honest commitment. His return to Judaism may well have been honest as well, but the footage of his appearance on a Chabad telethon is downright embarrassing.
Perhaps the most interesting part of this film is the insight into the way Dylan worked with the other musicians he played with. Violinist Scarlet Rivera talks about the freedom Dylan gave her to develop her own ideas. Bassist Rob Stoner talks about the disorganization of recording sessions. Drummer Winston Watson describes his sink or swim audition for Dylan’s band. In general, the picture of Dylan that emerges from their accounts is of an artist who seems more concerned with spontaneity and creative surprise than he is with rigid control.
Dylan Revealed is a very conventional documentary about a very unconventional artist. It does call attention to what might be considered the many faces of Bob Dylan, but certainly not as creatively as Todd Hayne’s I’m Not There. It does tell you something about Dylan in the sixties, for example his ‘supposed’ motorcycle accident, but not in the detail that you get from David Hajdu’s Positively 4th Street. It does talk about his electric apostasy, but it really gives little insight into what if anything he was trying to accomplish. Unfortunately the DVD doesn’t include any extra material. A director’s commentary on the making of the film would be welcome. It would be nice to know why there is no film with the man actually singing. It would be nice to know why little is said about the singer’s early relations with Joan Baez. It would be nice to know why Mickey Jones is the only member of The Band interviewed for the film. In the end what Dylan Revealed reveals is that there is still much about Mr. Dylan that needs revealing.