Diving headlong into one of the most controversial moments in Bob Dylan's storied career and paying no need to unbelievers, Jennifer Lebeau's Trouble No More unearths rare concert footage from the singer's "Christian period," when he toured small venues playing nothing but songs about his new faith. The singer's refusal to perform his hits angered fans at the time, and many critics were unkind to the new compositions. A chance for reappraisal comes next month, when Columbia/Legacy's latest Bootleg Series installment will collect many hours of live recordings from this period. Lebeau's film will be part of that set's "Deluxe Edition," and will be catnip for fans of the albums Slow Train Coming and Saved. But seen on the big screen at the New York Film Festival, it proved something of a come-to-Jesus moment for unconverted viewers as well, loaded with fine performances of songs that fit comfortably in the songwriter's canon.
Having found this rare material and helped get it into shape (shot on video in 1980, it looked surprisingly good on the big screen), Lebeau makes a bold choice in presentation: She cuts back and forth from the source material to newly shot scenes in which actor Michael Shannon plays an old-school preacher, delivering sermons to an off-camera flock.
These homilies were penned by Luc Sante, who says his homework consisted of listening to sermons by the great black preachers who made popular records in the 1920s. While some of the sermons are more true to the idiom than others (Lord, how great it would be to hear a Southern preacher actually chide his flock for eating junk food), their idiosyncrasies are enjoyable. More important, they're spiritually simpatico with Dylan, who has rarely done anything quite the way others do.
Shannon's contemplative but engaged performance is a good companion to 1980 Dylan, who in these concerts is far from standoffish. On "Saved," Dylan puts the message across as fervently as a tent-revivalist, his band chugging along like a train on straight tracks. On the rarity "Ain't Going to Hell for Anybody," he acknowledges his sinful ways and puts them behind him.
Though he has six African-American backup singers, this show doesn't evoke the sounds of the church the way, for example, Lyle Lovett does with his Large Band. Rather, it weaves them into the kind of rock music Dylan was already making at this time. Tim Drummond's bass (which cuts loose on songs like "Solid Rock") and Jim Keltner's drumming keep Spooner Oldham's organ from ever sounding churchy.
Lebeau presents the songs as intact performances, but avoids concert-film monotony by cutting back to Shannon after each one (and even giving him changes of vintage wardrobe). After the credits, she pulls up a duet shot away from the concert stage: "Abraham, Martin and John," a lament first recorded by Dion that Dylan played live many times in 1980. Tying the spiritual concerns that drove Dylan during these years with the social ones of the folk era, it's a lovely choice.
Distributor: Sony Music
Cast: Michael Shannon
Director-producer: Jennifer Lebeau
Screenwriter: Luc Sante
Executive producers: Jeff Rosen, Nigel Sinclair, Richard Alcock, Jeffrey Schulberg, Jeroen Van Der Meer
Director of photography: Ellen Kuras
Editor: Damian Rodriguez
Venue: New York Film Festival