Inside Bob Dylan’s Jesus Years: Busy Being Born…Again!, now available on DVD from MVD Visual, is a documentary produced and directed by Joel Gilbert. It focuses on the brief period (late '70s to early '80s) when Bob Dylan embraced Christianity and released a trio of Christian-themed albums. Fertile ground for a documentary, to be sure, but this film can't deliver the goods. Joel Gilbert botches the execution so thoroughly, I can't imagine even the most die-hard Dylan fans finding much reason to invest time in this.
"Contains no Bob Dylan songs, not affiliated with Bob Dylan," states the back DVD cover. At least they're up front about it. This is an unauthorized documentary, not necessarily a bad thing. But the completely objective perspective taken by Gilbert renders the whole project superficial at best. The film contains no overall thesis. Gilbert isn't making a case for or against the work produced by Dylan during this much maligned period of his career. He opts for a mostly informative approach, gathering a bunch of interviewees (some of far more interest than others) for two hours of talking head shots. An informative documentary, when done well, can be enlightening. But without access to the primary subject (Dylan himself), nor enough people with truly close ties to him, considerable gaps are left in the story.
Making matters worse, Joel Gilbert indulges in some very intrusive camera-hogging. It's quite unbecoming of a documentarian. This isn't a document of Gilbert's personal journey, though that might have improved his film. Through reading a his bio, I found that Gilbert "plays" Bob Dylan in a tribute band called Highway 61 Revisited. That isn't really talked about in the documentary, but it explains his Dylanesque appearance. He features himself prominently throughout the film, both on the soundtrack as well as on camera. Most of the songs are Gilbert originals, written and performed in a way that suggests Dylan on a very bad day. I doubt many viewers really want to hear a Dylan-wannabe while watching a film about the real guy.
While conducting his interviews, he cuts to frequent reaction shots of himself (mostly horribly lighted and with the camera and other gear in the shot) for no good reason. Worse still, there are shots of him walking around to various filming locations. Why? Because he apparently wants to be the star. The most jaw-dropping indulgence occurs with a sequence showing Gilbert driving to Muscle Shoals, Alabama. With his own music blaring away on the soundtrack we see dull footage of him behind the wheel, driving along southern highways. Perhaps he would've been better off making the film about himself and his own experiences portraying Dylan on stage.
The first thirty minutes are devoted almost entirely to information about the Vineyard Church, to the point where it seems like an infomercial. Dylan is hardly mentioned during this opening half hour. Ostensibly intended to provide background about the Christian church Dylan joined, it feels more like a promo piece for Pastor Bill Dwyer. By the time the subject turned towards Dylan's music of the period, my patience had worn very thin.
Amongst the other religious figures with very loose ties to Dylan, Gilbert managed to round up some worthwhile interviews. Most valuable is the late music producer Jerry Wexler, who produced Dylan's albums Slow Train Coming (1979) and Saved (1980). He shares some interesting anecdotes, shedding light on the methods used to produce Dylan's music during this period. A few musicians who played with Dylan during the "Jesus years" are interviewed as well, including back-up singer Regina McCrary and keyboardist Spooner Oldham. Rock critic Joel Selvin, who savagely criticized Dylan's religious-themed music, provides some interesting insight into the public reaction to Dylan's change in direction. As touted on the DVD box, Dylan himself turns up in a vintage interview. Don't expect much — the footage is about a minute long and amounts to a couple of sentences.
Ultimately, Inside Bob Dylan’s Jesus Years: Busy Being Born…Again! would have made a fine twenty-minute featurette if boiled down to the most pertinent information. At two hours, it wears out its welcome quickly. The film is amateurish and doesn't do much to argue for or against the controversial born again phase of Dylan's career.