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Trouble No More is a goldmine for Bob Dylan fans. The new documentary from Jennifer Lebeau, which played at Rome Film Fest after its world premiere at New York Film Festival, brings to light lost footage from Dylan’s gospel years, during which he released a trilogy of Christian albums.
Among those hard-core fans is Michael Shannon, who was recruited to perform a series of sermons, written by Luc Sante, that are intercut with the concert footage in the film.
Speaking to press in Rome, Shannon said he has always been a huge fan of the singer, and his very first concert as a little boy was seeing Dylan at the Kentucky State Fair.
“From that point on I knew this was a very special man. My admiration for him just kept growing over the years,” said Shannon, who often listens to Dylan for inspiration while preparing for performances.
Lebeau included the sermons as a way to give it a timeless feel, and said she wanted to avoid showing Dylan talking directly to the audience.
“The goal was to have people re-fall in love with the music,” explained Lebeau. “And we thought Bob Dylan speaking would have taken away from the music because everyone really obsessed over every word that he says because he’s such a craftsman.”
Shannon called Dylan extremely “brave” in this period after he alienated much of his fan base by veering exclusively toward religious music. He ultimately relented in 1981 and played some of his old hits in concert.
The sermons provide context to the music, written by Sante on themes given to him by Dylan via his management team. In one particularly revealing sermon, Shannon warns against rich men who put on a good front but are stealing from the poor.
When asked if he had anyone in mind while performing this, Shannon responded, “Unfortunately I wish there was just one person that I could think of while I was doing that sermon. It seems to be kind of an archetype at this point. There are so many different people it could be.”
He then mentioned another recent role he played as George Westinghouse in The Current War. “It’s in a bit of a holding pattern right now because of who produced it,” he said on the troubles surrounding the Weinstein picture.
“But nevertheless we made it,” said Shannon. “And it was a great honor to play George Westinghouse because he was a man who somehow managed to amass great wealth and build an empire without screwing people over.”
“He was actually a very decent human being and very kind to his workers. But he seems to be the odd man out,” continued Shannon. “Even back then, he was surrounded by industrialists and bankers that just wanted to not treat people fairly and that always really upset him. I think there are a lot of people that you could unfortunately be thinking of when you’re doing that sermon.”
Added Lebeau, “At the time when Dylan was going through this period, it was the end of Jimmy Carter’s presidency in the States, when we got a very rich actor named Ronald Reagan coming in and a new Republican thought into the overall social political culture of the States. Everything was changing then as well.”
While neither Lebeau nor Shannon met with Dylan directly over the course of the film, they did receive secondhand affirmation that he was pleased with it.
Indeed the closest Shannon got to the Nobel-prize winning singer was a meeting with his manager, Jeff Rosen.
“One of things Jeff said was Dylan is relentlessly focused on the present. A lot of people pay lip service to that, but Dylan really means it. He’s not interested or intrigued by his own past very much,” said Shannon.
He added, “I think we all are a lot more than he is, which is one the reasons why he continues to be such a great artist. He doesn’t get mired in his own legend.”
The film is available now as a DVD inside the new eight CD set: Trouble No More — The Bootleg Series Vol. 13 / 1979-1981.
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