Perhaps in a sly attempt to get extra attention for his newly released CD, Modern Times, Bob Dylan recently proclaimed that modern music all sounds like garbage. What a jerk, right?
OK, calm down. His statement is less ridiculous than it sounds. What Dylan seems to be complaining about isn't the content of modern music but rather the way it's produced. With all the digital processing, filtering and general knob-twisting music makers are doing these days, most of the life gets polished out of songs. He's right about this. Modern recorded music too often sounds plastic, unreal and, above all, homogeneous.
This is even true of Dylan's own music. The new CD is great, but it sounds just a little too smooth. I miss the old days, when his studio albums sounded like they were carved out of tree limbs and left to rot in the rain.
That's what I like about Mary Feidt's new documentary, Tangled Up in Bob, a movie about Dylan's hometown of Hibbing, Minn. The film has a homemade quality. Some of the images are pixely, and much of the camera work is kind of primitive. The text looks like something you might see on public access TV. Honestly, the whole package looks somewhat unfinished. Yet despite this roughness, or maybe because of it, I really got swept up in this documentary's many charms.
At this point, I should divulge that over the past 20 years or so, I've gone through long stretches where I was a full-on Dylan fanatic. I can say with a fair amount of certainty that fellow Dylan fans will enjoy this film, but I'm hoping plenty of other people will like it, too.
Feidt has produced films for both public and commercial television, and won several awards for her work. She likes Dylan well enough, but she's not obsessive. Having grown up in Minnesota, though, she was eager to explore what effect the isolation of the Iron Range might have had on Dylan's formative years.
Our very own Natalie Goldberg, the award-winning author of Writing Down the Bones, serves as the film's narrator. The Taos writer makes clear early on that she feels a special connection with Dylan, both because of her Jewish roots and because she, too, left her bland childhood home on Long Island and never looked back.
In some ways, she's an odd choice for a narrator. Goldberg is clearly bitter about her own youth, and she seems to assume Dylan is, too. This bitterness is part of what connects her to his biography, but in my opinion it distorts her views of him when she tries to force parallels between his life and hers that just aren't there.
That said, Goldberg otherwise does fine work as our guide to Dylan's distant past. Her strength is that she has a truly winning way with people. She quickly becomes close friends with Dylan's high school English teacher as well as his former best friend. Even with less major characters, Goldberg's conversational ease always seems to bring out the best in people.
Feidt tells me she was concerned about her movie coming out so close on the heels of Martin Scorsese's mega-marketed, ass-kissy PBS documentary, No Direction Home. To tell you the truth, although I liked Scorsese's film, I enjoyed Feidt's even more. Scorsese got all the great interviews. (He even got Dylan to open up on screen.) And he had access to some stunning archival footage. Yet No Direction Home was slick, polished and a little bit predictable—kind of like all that modern music Dylan hates so much. It was stylish, but it essentially covered the same ground that countless other books and documentaries have already covered.
Tangled Up In Bob, on the other hand, offers a lot more surprises. Sure, it occasionally rambles off in puzzling directions, but sometimes that's preferable to traveling up and down the same old weary road.
Tangled Up in Bob Written and directed by Mary Feidt; Unrated; Opens Saturday.
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