Wednesday, April 25, 2007

65 Revisited

The opening credits to 65 Revisited label the film as "Outtakes from Don't Look Back." The label doesn't accurately describe D. A. Pennebaker's new film. In the DVD commentary, Pennebaker talks about having made Don't Look Back without the benefit of notes or of knowing what was going to happen. He just followed Dylan around, filmed what interested him, what seemed important at the time. He got a lot right, but he missed some things too. Now, 40 years later, he has a different sense of what was important about that 1965 tour, and these newly recognized interests are apparent in 65 Revisited, constructed from footage not used in the 1967 film. As one of the commentators remarks, this was a transitional period as Dylan was moving from his acoustic period to his electric phase. The acoustic Dylan is much in evidence. In fact, this film is a kind of tribute to the acoustic Dylan. While Don't Look Back focused on the peripatetic Dylan, his incendiary and explosive personality, his way of challenging reporters and fans and anyone who threatened or irritated him or just happened to be in the way at the wrong or right time, 65 Revisited focuses on Dylan's music. It features a number of excellent performances, many of them complete, both on stage and in hotel rooms.

Film quality is grainy and often marred by imperfections, but this is part of the authenticity of the film. Someone did a good job of restoring the film and of bringing out as much of it visually as possible. The sound quality is usually excellent. No real plot or narrative is in evidence. The film follows Dylan from one British city to another. We see him riding in cars, talking with friends and fans, rehearsing, and mainly we see him performing. There is not an edge to this film as there was in Don't Look Back. We don't see Dylan ridiculing posers and reporters. We don't see much of the famous Dylan attitude. We see instead a performer who relishes his moment of fame and who truly enjoys performing. There are numerous glimpses of a shy and insecure and vulnerable Dylan. We see him more as a human being than as a distant pop icon. His nervousness before he goes on stage in the Royal Albert Hall on May 8, 1965, is surprising and amusing.

Other surprising aspects of Dylan emerge in 65 Revisited. In one scene he chats with a group of British fans. He is shy and somewhat diffident but not at all indifferent. He's flattered by their attention, and there are moments when you feel as if you're watching a group of young people chatting casually with one another, not a famous singer talking to fans. In another scene, Dylan and Bob Neuwirth sit on a train leaving the station, watching girls run alongside the tracks waving frantically. Dylan and Neuwirth don't know what to make of this. They laugh and seem astounded.

Howard Grossman comes off in the new film as more gentle and congenial that he seemed to be in Don't Look Back—what we did see of him there. Here he is much in evidence, and though he is clearly the manager in charge of arrangements, he is also the friend and companion, and his admiration for Dylan as a person and artist rather than merely as a commodity is clear.

Dylan the singer, songwriter, and musician is the focus of 65 Revisited. The film begins and ends with Dylan playing the piano. An unidentified black man (possibly Tom Wilson, producer of Highway 61 Revisited) sits next to the piano, rocking in pleasure as he listens. Elsewhere Dylan plays the usual guitar and harmonica. There are excellent performances of "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright," "Love Minus Zero/No Limit," "To Ramona," The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll," "It's Alright Ma, I'm Only Bleeding," "She Belongs to Me," and others. Dylan's singing and harmonica musicianship are amazing. He has been criticized over the years for sloppiness and indifference in his public performances. Those purported flaws are not evident here. Musically, he is superb in this film.

This film helps explain the rage many British fans expressed when Dylan went electric. He sings as well as he ever sang in these "outtakes"—his singing is heartfelt, artful, and beautiful. He had to evolve, he couldn't stand still, and the electric Dylan has its own many merits—it's another impressive dimension of his career—but 65 Revisited reminds us that a rich and important period of his career was culminating and indeed coming to an end in these performances in England. The Newport Folk Festival, and the recording of Highway 61 Revisited, were only two months away.

It's interesting to compare Dylan's performances in this film with those recorded in Eat the Document, filmed a year later. Dylan in 65 Revisited is relaxed, clear in his singing, very musical. A year later his singing has changed remarkably—he is still excellent, perhaps even better, but the music and singing have changed, the influence of heavy drug and alcohol use is clearly apparent. If we want to accept the evidence that the Scorsese documentary and other sources cite to suggest that Dylan in 1965 and 1966 was verging on burn out and self-immolation, the difference between the Dylan of 65 Revisited and Eat the Document tends to support the argument. After the final scene in Eat the Document, you can see the motorcycle wreck looming.

Friday, April 20, 2007

West Side Story

West Side Story (1961) seems so dated and irrelevant that portions are painful to watch. For me, the scene in which Maria dances around the room singing "I Feel Pretty" is ludicrous. And though the dancing is superb, the scene in which the Sharks dance to express their anger and frustration over the death of Bernardo is a patronizing, insipid moment. Is this how the young really express and feel grief? The Gap commercial based on this scene is as effective as the scene itself. The commercial strips away the issues of ethnic experience and violence and focuses only on the tight, firm bodies of the young as they dance and gyrate. The point is that the scene is only dance and music and physical bodies to begin with—its essence has nothing to do with the immigrant experience and violence—it is all spectacle, no substance.

How appropriate is it now in 2007 for a musical film to address the problems of Puerto Rican immigrants through song and dance, especially song and dance predicated on the assumption that assimilation is what these immigrants seek and need? As sympathetic and tender as the film seeks to be, it stereotypes, sentimentalizes, and condescends. On the one hand it suggests that the immigrants seek the apotheosis of the American Dream, but on the other hand with the deaths of the two lovers it suggests that Dream is forever out of reach. Violence and ethnic conflict stand in the way. Is this because the odds against the immigrants are too great, or is it because the Dream isn't for immigrants to begin with? Well, Sondheim and Bernstein would certainly not accept the latter opinion, and in fact I don't think the film makes this assumption either, but the film seems such an anachronism in 2007 that it's easy to imagine a young audience coming to that conclusion.

The scene where Tony and Maria sing "One Hand, One Love" to each other might have seemed genuine and heartfelt in 1961, but now it comes across as cornpone, like the scene in Blue Hawaii, when Elvis sings a love song to his fiancée's grandmother. Does anyone take either scene seriously?

The film's idealization and idolatry of the young seems dated as well. Did we ever feel like Tony and Maria feel at that age? Today the young seem either jaded and co-opted, or bitter and lost. How deeply would they identify with the gangs and the girls in this film? Both in its treatment of Puerto Rican immigrants and of the young in general, the perspective of this film betrays itself: produced and directed by men no longer young and who are not themselves Puerto Rican—what the film shows is what they believe the Sharks and the Jets feel, what they imagine the young characters of this film feel--not what they know, because they don't. The film is sympathetic to its characters, but also patronizing and at worst cloyingly sentimental.

I try to suspend my disbelief, my 2007 sensibilities, with this film. I want to like West Side Story. Bernstein's score is beautiful. "There's a Place for Us" is one of the wonderful iconic songs from the 1960s. "America" is a great song as well. The dancing is impressive. I enjoy musicals, and, technically, this should be one of the best. But I can't suspend the 2007 perspective. The social context and the date of this musical trump all. West Side Story is a perfect example of a film that many once would have claimed as a classic, but that today is better left dusty and forgotten on the shelf.