Bob Dylan- Unplugged and Plugged at Newport 1963-65
Bob Dylan: The Other Side of The Mirror: Live at The Newport Folk Festival 1963-1965,Bob Dylan and various other artists, 2007
Were we ever really that young? That is the first reaction I had in viewing this film. A young Bob Dylan featured with his lady at the time (I believe, if memory serves) a young Joan Baez. And who, at least for the controversial 1965 concert (where he did that taboo couple of electrified guitar numbers that freaked the old-time folkies out) had a young Markin as part of his audience. I am not altogether sure that in the end Bob Dylan cared one way or the other whether he was the voice of a generation, my generation, the generation of ’68 but in this very well configured musical documentary there is certainly a case to be made for that proposition. This is the high tide of Dylan’s career as an acoustic folk performer making the transition to, for lack of a better term, folk rock or just flat out rock.
Probably the most important reason to view this documentary, however, is to observe Dylan’s visual, vocal and professional transformation during this short two year period. In 1963 Dylan is dressed in the de rigueur work shirt and denim jeans with an unmade bed of a hairdo. His voice is, to be kind, reedy and scratchy, and his songs sung at that time are things like Blowin’ in the Wind (done here with Baez and others in an incredible finale) and With God on Our Side (with Baez) reflecting the influence of traditional folk themes and of a style derived from his early hero Woody Guthrie. Newport 1964 is a transition. The hair is somewhat styled, the outfit more hippie than traditional folk garb, the voice is stronger reflecting the established fact that he is now ‘king of the hill’ in the folk world. And he sings things like the classic Mr. Tambourine Man that give a hint that he is moving away from the tradition idiom.
Newport 1965 gives us the full blown Dylan that we have come not to know. The one that once we think we have him pegged slips away on us. Here we get no mixing it up with Baez or other folkies but a full-bore rock back up band to play Maggie’s Farm and one of the anthems for my generation, Like A Rolling Stone. Then back to acoustic with It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue and Love Minus Zero, No Limit (which is something of the love anthem for my generation or, at least, one of them). All done in a very strong and confident voice that says here it is, take it or leave it. Wow. You know my answer.
This film, seemingly consciously, shies away from an investigation of any of the controversies of the time concerning the direction of Dylan’s work. Pete Seeger’s only shot on film, as I recall, was to introduce Dylan at the 1964 festival. The most controversial subjects addressed seem to be whether or not it would throw the schedule off to give into the crowd and have Dylan play longer. Or whether it was okay for the jaded youth of the day to have folk singers as idols. Aside from that shortcoming, which in any case can be pursued elsewhere, this film will go a long way to solving any lingering controversy about whether Mr. Dylan belongs in the folk pantheon.