Friday, October 9, 2015

Two Documentary Films About Bob Dylan and The Band: Down in the Flood; After the Crash '66-'78

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2015
Images from the Internet

The reason I put these two reviews together is because they both deal with different perspectives of the same group of people in overlapping time periods, essentially from 1966 through 1978. Though both have different viewpoints and distribution companies, they really are companions as both are British release documentaries from the same parent enterprise and have an Executive Producer in common. The second DVD listed here actually was released first, but I reviewed them in the order I watched them.

Bob Dylan and the Band: Down in the Flood – Associations and Collaborations
(aka Down in the Flood: Bob Dylan, The Band & The Basement Tapes)
Executive Producer Rob Johnstone

Narrated by Thomas Arnold
Prism Films / Chrome Dreams Media
114 minutes, 2012

The title of this documentary is a bit misleading as it focuses not so much on the Zimmer-Man as much as the group that would first become famous backing him up, The Band. Actually, the documentary’s narrator, Thomas Arnold, vocalizes the “elevator pitch” of just what this DVD is about in one sentence: “This is the story of the relationship between Dylan and the Hawks, their reinvention of American Music at the close of the ‘60s, and the legendary amateur recordings they made together in Woodstock: The Basement Tapes.”

It all starts in the mysterious Deep South of the early ‘60s when rockabilly rebel Ronnie Hawkins gathered a band together and called them The Hawks. The Beatles were breaking and rockabilly was fading fast. That is when the call came from Toronto and Hawkins and the Hawks move to our friendly neighbor to the north. With attrition (and probably some work visa issues), the band is replaced one by one by Canadians, with the exception of the drummer, some guy named Levon Helm (d. 2012). Perhaps you’ve heard of him? The rest of the new group consisted of Rick Danko (bass; d. 1999), Garth Hudson (keyboard / sax), Richard Manuel (piano; d. 1986), and Robbie Robertson (guitar).

When The Hawks outgrew Hawkins’ rockabilly sound and struck out on their own just a couple of years later, they would eventually rename themselves The Band, outshining Hawkins with their own illustrious career.

Hooking up with Bob Dylan after his motorcycle accident in 1966, Dylan talked the Hawks into moving to Woodstock, NY (a very lovely, quaint and New Age-y town that is miles from where the so-called Woodstock Festival was held). They all moved into a house with pink exterior which they dubbed The Big Pink, which would eventually be the name of The Band’s first solo record after Dylan abandoned them once he got what he wanted. To date, 138 of their sessions, taped by Hudson, would emerge and be called The Basement Tapes, for obvious reasons. Decades before the release was official, the Tapes were floating around as a 2-LP bootleg. I still remember listening to it in a friend’s house in the early ‘70s. It was in a plain white cover with a stamp that read Great White Wonder. I recall the quality of the records not being that good, as it was probably several generations down the road.

Dylan does play a recurring role in the story of The Band, but that’s pretty much it. He used the group to help get him figure out the direction he wanted, and then dropped them to record his next LP, John Wesley Harding, and using studio musicians in their stead, without the people who had just spent all that time with him. This would apparently become a pattern with Bobby, using The Band as his touring group, and then dropping them before reaching the studio. On the other hand, this kind of forced The Band to strike out on their own, borrowing what they learned in that basement, and releasing their seminal first folk rock album, The Big Pink. It also contained their first – and one of their biggest – hits, “The Weight” (a song I really do not like, but I digress…).

The Big Pink would quickly be considered a classic album, a trendsetter in Americana roots rock (hence the “reinvention of American Music” comment above), and blast them into the A-list. While “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” was also a huge hit, they never really came up to the level of Big Pink status again.

As happens with most bands, a power struggle emerges, in this case between Robertson and Helm, along with a few deaths here and there, and The Band dissolves into history not as much with a whimper but a bang, thanks in part to the release of the Martin Scorsese-directed final The Band concert, The Last Waltz, as infamous for its guest musicians (e.g., Dylan, Joni, Neil, Ronnie) as for the group’s last hurrah. All in all, the life and death of The Band really never touched me, as I always found them kind of uninteresting, even while recognizing their talent as musicians.

As with most of the prodigious series of documentaries put out by the Chrome Dream company (there’s over a dozen of just Dylan alone), the film is not just a collection of comments: there are multiple clips, both live (including arenas with Dylan and by themselves, their appearances on Saturday Night Live, and clips from The Last Waltz) and commentaries by various writers and critics (many of them British), musicians and technicians, with both first and second hand anecdotes and theories. Of course, it’s the first-hand anecdotes that attracted the most of my attention, such as Hawkins, Mickey Jones (who played drums during their 1968 world tour), The Band’s early producer John Simon, Nashville session guitarist Charley McCoy (Blonde on Blonde, John Wesley Harding, Nashville Skyline), and the one who interested me the most, Garth Hudson, who was known for both recording The Basement Tapes and also credited for giving The Band their sound. As is common with Chrome Dreams releases, there are few women who are questioned, making this a testosterone-driven doc; this is a comment I’ve made before, and I’m sadly probably going to posit again.

While I’ll never be a fan of the Band, it’s still good to get a history of them that’s somewhat thorough, and that’s one thing about this series, they really tend do delve into minutia through clips, interviews and theory. I’m glad they’re keeping track.

Bob Dylan: After the Crash 1966-1978 (Special Edition 2 Disc Set)
Executive Producers Rob Johnstone and Andy Cleland
Narrated by Mandy O’Neale

Pride Films / Chrome Dreams Media
DVD: Disc 1: 118 minutes, 2005 / 2013
CD: Disc 2: 50 minutes 1971 / 2013
This DVD is especially interesting to watch after the one above, because even though they cover essentially the same timeframe, and have in some respects the same format, the focus is incredibly different.

Again we approach Dylan after his motorcycle crash in 1966, but this time we hear some skepticism about whether it even happened the way Dylan explained by his friend, Al Aronowitz (d. 2005; I had the opportunity to meet Al once a year or two before he passed at an Andy Pratt / Moogy Klingman [d. 2011] show in New York City the night I got kicked out of a Starbucks; but I digress…). Either way, it infamously led to Dylan holing himself in a house in Woodstock, NY with a group of guys called the Hawks who would soon change their name to The Band.

Funny thing is, in this story, the equally infamous Basement Tapes that came out of that are just a blip in this telling of the story. The Band gets little shrift here, even when they are backing him on tours, the exception of which is towards the end when they show a clip of Dylan and the Band playing the group’s last show in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz (1975); it’s the same clip from the other DVD, “Baby Let Me Follow You Down.”

The story here follows Dylan through his Nashville albums, such as John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline, the latter in 1969. This is accompanied by a clip of Dylan singing a duet of “Girl from the North Country” with Johnny Cash on Cash’s ABC television show (which is also shown in the other DVD).

One major difference between this DVD and many of the others from this label is that there are a remarkably fewer musical clips here, and a lot more talking head interviews. As this one originally came out a few years earlier, perhaps they were still developing the “formula” for this series? While hearing the music is great, it also can see seen as padding to make these longer, and at near two hours, I’ll take the info and be as happy as if there were snippets of songs (they never ever play full numbers, just 10-30 seconds each).

One thing I also like about the Chrome Dream series is that while they’re happy to lionize the artist in focus, there is also a level of honesty, even on the negative side. For example, for Dylan’s show with the Band at the 1969 Isle of Wight Festival, Aronowitz tells a story of why Dylan was an hour late due to a sound system issue; this is contrasted by Ray Foulk, the Festival’s organizer who blames the Band for playing too long and that it was only starting an hour later than scheduled. Much like the folkies not expecting Dylan to go electric, the Festival fans were not expecting his new country style, leading to bad reviews from press there.

Another example of this frankness is British music journalist Nigel Williamson (he appears regularly on Chrome Dream documentaries), who plainly states about Dylan’s Self Portrait LP, “It’s almost as if he deliberately set out to make an album that everyone would hate.” For New Morning, Nigel calls it a “good rather than great” album.

Around this time in the story, we are introduced to AJ Weberman, a fan who claims he was Dylan’s friend that searched Dylan’s garbage trying to find clues about song meanings. This led to some angry (and both pathetic and funny at the same time) phone calls in 1971 from Dylan asking Weberman to cease and desist. At some point Dylan physically beat Weberman up, something that would have been all over the television now; then again, Weberman couldn’t do what he did (harassment) either.

The phone calls, which Weberman recorded, have been available as bootlegs for decades, and are collected here in an accompanying CD, licensed to the documentary directly from Weberman. I found it fascinating to listen to Weberman, who is interviewed (probably part of the deal of the rights, as he comes across as a strange yet narcissistic man). This is part of the story of Dylan that has fascinated me, so it’s nice to actually see Weberman in the (digital) flesh, as he humorously claims he is starting the Bob Dylan Liberation Front against Dylan’s newer styles. I find it curious that in all the information that is flowing through this DVD, there is no mention of Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman (d. 1986), a usually sore topic for Weberman.

There is some digging into Dylan’s only Asylum Records release Planet Waves (after pressure from David Geffen), a 1974 tour after 8 years off the road, the more successful Blood on the Tracks in 1975, and his Desire LP in the film, but it feels more informational and chronological that delving. For the deeper look, they discuss Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, which was Dylan’s first acting role (and the first and only film I ever saw stoned on weed). The film is looked at critically, but we see no clips other than the trailer, which has a brief shot of Dylan. In other words, for all the talking, there is very little imagery other than concerning the accompanying album. Weirdly, no verbal mention or musical clip is made of the biggest hit on the soundtrack (and one of my fave songs of later-day Dylan), “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.”

The next big piece in the story detailed here is the Rolling Thunder Review, a tour that started out successfully and fell under the weight of its own success and Dylan’s boredom. We see it through the eyes of Dylan’s band leader for the show, Rob Stoner (nee Rothstein; I still have a couple of his solo albums). He’s a good storyteller of what it was like to work with Dylan in both the studio and on tour, and though he left midway through the second RTR tour, he still has good words to say about Bob. What I felt was his most intriguing comment is that Phil Ochs was turned down for the RTR, and soon after took his own life in 1976, so Stoner wonders if there is a correlation. This segment is followed by the Bob Dylan directed disaster of a film, Renaldo & Clara, which all the critics interviewed here say essentially that the live footage was good, but as a piece of cinema, as a whole, it was not a success.

Towards the end of the story here, Dylan gets a bigger band, and records and releases the Street Legal album, which is well-received everywhere except on his home turf of the US. The end of this DVD comes in November 1978, when Dylan becomes a Born Again Christian.

Again, with the Chrome Dream collection, there are lots of interviews, here more than usual, consisting of writers, journalists, and some of the people who were integral to the period, such as Weberman, Stoner, Aronowitz, Foulk, as well as Ron Cornelius (guitarist on Self Portrait and New Morning), Bruce Langhorne (guitarist for Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid), Eric Weissberg (guitarist on the New York session of Blood on the Tracks), Kevin Odegard (guitarist for the Minnesota sessions of Blood on the Tracks; Jacques Levy (d. 2004; playwright and lyric collaborator on Desire), and Paul Colby (d. 2014; owner of the Bitter End). And finally, giving a strong female voice to the boys club is violinist Scarlet Rivera (Desire, Rolling Thunder Review).

The information here is both direct stories and second-hand journalism by professional writers in the field, but it flushing out pretty well, which is just what I expect from the Chrome Dream team.


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