NEW YORK – "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (search)," released in 1963, has one of the era's most memorable album covers. Gracing the album that features such folk anthems as "Blowin' in the Wind" and "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" is a photo of the 21-year-old Dylan (search) tripping through a snowy New York street with a radiant young woman hugging him close.
As a resident of Greenwich Village, I was dimly aware that this photograph I knew so well was snapped somewhere along my regular haunts. But I didn't much care where. Although I shared with Dylan the time he helped define, I had never really been a fan, never felt his magic. I never even owned that record.
I mention this only because of a magnificent film portrait, "Bob Dylan: No Direction Home (search)," which airs as a two-part "American Masters" special at 9 p.m. EDT Monday and Tuesday on PBS (check local listings).
After seeing this 3 1/2-hour documentary, I was inspired to pinpoint the site of that fateful photo shoot: Jones Street, a single block that stretches between West Fourth and Bleecker, where I pass every day. And, now knowing, I retraced Dylan's steps in homage to him and his long-ago girlfriend, Suze Rotolo, and especially to what he represents.
After four decades of putting off Dylan, now I understand. Such is the wallop I got from "Bob Dylan: No Direction Home," a film I recommend not only to Dylan devotees and neophytes alike, but also to anyone trying to reconnect with where America was then, and grasp where it is today.
Years in the making, the film is a complex co-production, with ancillary products that include CDs, DVDs and a book. It is authorized by Dylan and draws on his vast archives, including 10 hours of on-camera interviews that the legendarily elusive singer-songwriter sat for with manager Jeff Rosen in 2001.
Shortly after that, Martin Scorsese was brought in to make sense of 60 hours worth of footage.
"I'm predisposed to love Dylan's work, but what really hooked me on the project was the nature of him in the interviews," says the celebrated director, who traveled similar ground for his 1978 concert film, "The Last Waltz," focusing on Dylan's one-time backup group, The Band.
"Watching Dylan's eyes as he searches for these words, you see it all happening there," Scorsese says with evident delight. "He was so honest and so open, but also playing with you, and contradictory, and I said, `That's great! That's exactly what we need.'
"'Cause who's gonna figure the man out? We want an answer for everything, but he can't give you the answer! You know the man through his art, and he's still going. He doesn't know where he's gonna wind up. He's trying to get home. Like all of us, I guess."
During an exclusive chat with The Associated Press, Scorsese calls himself a latecomer to Dylan.
"I think it was 1965 with `Like a Rolling Stone,'" he says. "The way it revels in the bitterness: 'How does it feel to be on your own, no direction home.' Devastating! It grows with you as you grow older, and it doesn't go away."
Scorsese's film covers Dylan during that first, most revolutionary stretch — up through 1966, by which time he had moved on from his basic folk foundation and "gone electric," incurring the wrath of fans who accused him of betrayal, of selling out.
But Dylan, who has always followed his own muse, was unrepentant even after being booed by those who loved him most.
"I had a perspective on the booing," he recalls in the film, "because you got to realize you can kill someone with kindness, too."
Dylan had wanted success, whatever that might mean, but he never consented to be anyone's messiah. That was a role he scorned, like every role imposed on him as, at his own pace, he stayed in transit.
"Just when people think he gives you one thing," Scorsese marvels, "he gives you another."
The film explores how with loads of concert footage and other vintage material, some never before seen; interviews with figures who were there, including Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Maria Muldaur, Peter Yarrow and Al Kooper, as well as the late Dave Van Ronk and Allen Ginsberg; and most notably, Dylan himself, who provides the narrative thrust of the film.
"I was born very far from where I was supposed to be, and so I'm on my way home," he declares at the start, and the film reaches back to tiny Hibbing, Minn., where, growing up, Robert Zimmerman felt so dislocated he even wondered if he was born to the right parents.
But grounding him early was the fearless folk singer Woody Guthrie, who proved a revelation: "You could listen to his songs and actually learn how to live."
By 1961, the lad rechristened Bob Dylan ("the name just popped into my head one day," he insists) had come to New York to sing songs and find his home in an age of social ferment. The times, they were a-changin', and Dylan was changing too.
And he kept on changing. Within a few years, Dylan and his band were getting booed at every date on a European tour.
"What happened to Woody Guthrie, Bob?" shouts one of many hecklers at the "new" Bob Dylan.
"I'm gonna get a new Bob Dylan," Dylan cracks later, backstage, "and use him: `Here's the new Bob Dylan. See how long HE lasts.'"
On July 29, 1966, shortly after gratefully returning home from that stormy tour, he was nearly killed in a motorcycle crash, and spent months recuperating. It marked the end of an era, and there the film ends.
Of course, Dylan, now 64, has continued to write, perform and record. But the temptation in this film is to speak of him in the past tense. Even he seems to do it.
"He's continued to evolve," Scorsese says. "But he's a creature of those times." Distant times, when he created songs still blowing in the wind. By the harshest measure, it's been decades since Bob Dylan "mattered." That's OK. Luminously, "No Direction Home" makes clear how much.