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With all due respect to “I’m Not There,” Todd Haynes’ imaginative and often dazzling meditation on the pop-culture mythology of Bob Dylan, there ain’t nothing like the real thing.
In “The Other Side of the Mirror: Bob Dylan Live at the Newport Folk Festival 1963-1965,” documentarian Murray Lerner delivers the genuine article, on shimmering B&W film, in some of the most legendary performances of his early career. The film receives its West Coast premiere Thursday as part of the Mods & Rockers Festival at the American Cinematheque and will remain forever young on DVD, a must for any fan.
An indispensable chronicler of musicians including Isaac Stern, Miles Davis and the Who, Lerner has delved into his archives to craft a fascinating portrait of Dylan during key transitional years. The artist’s blossoming from folkie treasure to self-defined rock ‘n’ roll visionary unfolds dramatically onscreen through his performances at three editions of the Newport Folk Festival.
Using outtakes from his 1967 Newport docu “Festival” (about 70% of the material has not been seen before), Lerner constructs a narrative devoid of narration, talking-head anecdotes, analyses or interpretations. The only adornment is onscreen titles announcing the respective year of each section. Eschewing slice-and-dice manipulation and with deceptive simplicity, Lerner and his team of editors orchestrate the material with poetic precision.
At his first Newport appearance, in 1963, a tentative 22-year-old Dylan faced the collegiate white crowd of 20,000 as a beloved disciple of Woody Guthrie, his repertoire including “North Country Blues” and “Talking World War III Blues.” At evening performances and the fest’s more casual afternoon workshops, he’s introduced as an artist who “grew out of a need,” his “finger on the pulse of our generation” — the kinds of accolades that, we now know from recent interviews and his 2004 memoir, made Dylan squirm.
By the 1964 festival, Johnny Cash was singing Dylan’s praises and his songs (his rendition of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” ends all too soon). More than that, Dylan’s earnestness was balanced by a self-aware irony, in his attitude and his songs; he and Joan Baez all but crack up as they perform “It Ain’t Me, Babe.” Yet when he brings the house down with “Chimes of Freedom,” and as Peter Yarrow struggles to introduce the next act, Dylan bounces back onstage with elfin delight to tell the roaring, rapturous crowd, “Thank you, I love you.”
Building up to the legendary 1965 festival, when Dylan and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band (sans Butterfield) introduced electric rock ‘n’ roll to the purist gathering, “The Other Side of the Mirror” illustrates the finer points of the culture clash. His hair now long, his face filled out, his work shirt traded in for a black leather jacket, Dylan faces a largely unchanged crowd. But however “Maggie’s Farm” may have bruised and scandalized them, still they demanded an encore. What transpired wasn’t a matter of pure animosity, as lore would have it.
Little Bobby Dylan was no longer theirs, but he was something greater. And in his acoustic afternoon performance that year of “Love Minus Zero/No Limit,” his face held in closeup, framed by bulky foam-wrapped microphones and wind-tossed trees, Lerner has given us three of the most gorgeous minutes ever put to film.
THE OTHER SIDE OF THE MIRROR
Director-producer: Murray Lerner
Executive producer: Jeff Rosen
Main camera crew: Murray Lerner, Stanley Meredith, George Pickow, Francis Grumman
Editors: Alison Heim, Einar Westerlund, Pagan Harlemann, George Panos, Howard Alk
Main sound crew: Ben Sobin, Jack Jacobson, Art Bloom, Mike Scott, John Gibbs
The Freedom Singers
Peter, Paul and Mary
Running time — 84 minutes
No MPAA rating
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