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Reviewed by Una Persson
ne of the most striking things about Murray Lerner’s new Dylan-at-Newport documentary – beside the music itself, that is – is the lack of any commentary, interviews, behind-the-scenes banter, etc. This goes against the grain of what has come to be the de facto standard for all music documentary DVDs these days. Lerner’s intent is to let the music speak for itself (some bits and pieces of his interactions with the musicians and audience are included, though). Whether this adds to the abundant mythology that already exists around Dylan’s transformation from protest singer to folk brigand to rock touchstone, or merely gives the existing commentary some context, remains to be seen.
There’s certainly been no shortage of Dylan ephemera, especially in the past couple of years. Indeed, the cynical part of me feels it’s an obvious cash-in on an artist whose biographical minutiae is matched only by the Beatles and Elvis Presley. “The Other Side of the Mirror,” though, is not just another notch in the documentary bedpost. The way in which Lerner tells the tale – by letting the music be the storytelling vehicle – is downright captivating. Some of this footage has already made its appearance on other documents, namely Martin Scorsese’s “No Direction Home” and Lerner’s own “Festival” (another Newport chronicle). In fact, 70 percent of the material has not been seen before, Lerner claims. But, over the course of 20 songs (not all complete) and 83 minutes, spanning daytime Newport “workshops” and nighttime mainstage sets, including the now-legendary electric set with Mike Bloomfield – Boogate, if you will – Dylan’s stage presence, charisma and captivating musicality never wavers.
Through the music alone – okay, maybe through his clothes and body English as well – you’re witness to Dylan’s transformation from the solemn young protest singer of 1963 (complete with blue work shirt, no less) to the renegade folkie in 1964 who redefined folk music by choosing to look inward instead of outward (displaying a stunning command on the language of poetry in the process). One of my favorite moments in the film, in fact, is the look on the faces of those on and around the stage during Dylan’s daytime performance of “Mr. Tambourine Man” – even his fellow folkies appear awestruck. And the acoustic afternoon performance that year of "Love Minus Zero/No Limit" is simply stunning, period. Other highlights (lowlights?) include Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul & Mary)’s interactions with both Dylan and the audience, which range from control freak (“After Bobby's set there will be no remarks” or "It is essential to get the level for your instruments into your heads!") to galling (“"I would like to say that he has his finger on the pulse of our generation” and “Bobby, could you do another song please? He's going to get an acoustic guitar”). And maybe it’s a you-had-to-be-there moment, but I’ve never been able to abide Joan Baez, neither her insipid fawning over Dylan or her strident, shrill shrieking that passed for most folk singing in the early ‘60s.
Lerner has captured the legendary electric set from 1965 (“Maggie’s Farm,” “Like A Rolling Stone”) in all its infamy. There’s been a lot of commentary over the years about the audience’s reaction to this set, running the gamut from claims the booing was about the sound quality to claims that it was just a few people responding negatively to this new leather jacket-clad and rock’n’roll Dylan. This movie answers those questions: the sound was great, and there were a whole lot of people booing, shouting and reacting in disgust (though just as many people cheering as well).
This no-frills document includes a bonus interview with Lerner and a decent booklet with liner notes by Tom Piazza. If you’re a Dylanologist, like me, it’s a must-see (or must-have) movie. If you’re new to Dylan, or a casual fan, it’ll be gratifying to experience the man and his music without all the commentary, hype and bluster that usually accompanies Dylan documentaries.