They show me to the door,
They say don't come back no more
'Cause I don't be like they'd like me to,
And I walk out on my own
A thousand miles from home
But I don't feel alone
'Cause I believe in you.
- Bob Dylan, "I Believe in You" (1979)
Any rock star can take drugs, trash hotel rooms, and support fashionable political causes. Yawn. Becoming an outspoken, born-again Christian, on the other hand, is truly shocking, especially when you're Bob Dylan.
It still seems almost impossible to believe, but from 1978 through 1981, Dylan was a Christian performer. His albums Slow Train Coming and Saved consisted entirely of Christian material, and he used every available opportunity to tell people about his new life. Many of his fans, needless to say, weren't sure what to make of it.
This is absolutely fascinating subject matter for a documentary, and much of Inside Bob Dylan's Jesus Years is absolutely absorbing. Unfortunately, the finished film is quite flawed.
For the first forty minutes or so, which consists largely of Dylan's former pastor and born-again colleagues talking about their faith, I wondered if the movie was actually a Christian proselytizing video disguised as a documentary. Things pick up considerably, however, when legendary producer Jerry Wexler first appears.
Wexler, who passed away in August, was a self-described "Jewish atheist" who jumped at the opportunity to produce Bob Dylan and didn't back away when he realized what Dylan's new songs were about. He was also an insightful, very funny interview subject. If director Joel Gilbert had made a film called Two Hours of Jerry Wexler Being Interviewed About Dylan, that would have been fine with me.
Dylan recorded Slow Train Coming at Muscle Shoals Sound — the Alabama studio where Wexler produced many of his famed soul and R&B recordings in the 1960s — and wisely hired an up-and-comer named Mark Knopfler to play guitar. The result was arguably one of Dylan's best-sounding album, and even produced a Grammy-winning hit single, "Gotta Serve Somebody." Record buyers, at least, accepted Dylan's new direction better than anyone could have expected.
Concert goers not so much. Shortly after Slow Train Coming came out, Dylan performed a series of shows in San Francisco consisting almost entirely of his new, religious music, interrupted by occasional preaching. The reaction, needless to say, was confused and often downright hostile. Many audience members left in disgust, telling TV news cameras on the way out what they thought of Dylan's new direction, and a negative San Francisco Chronicle review featured the headline, "Bob Dylan's God-Awful Gospel." (The Jews for Jesus leafleters outside the theater — invited by Dylan himself — found a very receptive audience for their pamphlets in fans who wanted to get some idea of what Dylan was thinking.)
1980's Saved wasn't received quite as well (one music historian calls the album "lost"), and by 1981, Dylan was moving on. One of the problems with Inside Bob Dylan's Jesus Years is that it doesn't really examine why Bob Dylan, who had turned his storied career on its head by embracing Christianity, abandoned it.
Director/producer Joel Gilbert, a Dylan lookalike, isn't the most charismatic interviewer either (often he's shown asking his subjects questions directly off a sheet of paper). The film, especially in the first third, feels quite padded, and it probably wouldn't have hurt to have a narrator either.
The biggest problem with Inside Bob Dylan's Jesus Years, however, is one that the filmmakers probably couldn't have helped: it's a documentary about Bob Dylan that doesn't actually feature any music by Bob Dylan.
I have no doubt that Gilbert really wanted to use tracks from Slow Train Coming and Saved in his movie, but I'm guessing he either couldn't get permission or couldn't afford to do so. Instead, Gilbert's Dylan tribute band, Highway 61 Revisited, provides the soundtrack. The effect comes across a little like an E! True Hollywood Story episode.
Inside Bob Dylan's Jesus Years is worth seeing if you're already a Dylan follower, but it probably won't win any new converts to the cause. Until someone else makes a film about this underexamined period of Dylan's life, however, it will have to suffice.