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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Boy from the North Country
by Donald Levit

The only thing long about this lean 80-minute film is its title, The Other Side of the Mirror: Bob Dylan Live at the Newport Folk Festival, 1963-1965. At a New York Film Festival press conference, director/producer/co-photographer Murray Lerner lamented the awful distribution that forty years ago doomed his neglected Festival overview of Newports 1963-66. Though the current documentary comes with no distributor and is announced for DVD release for the first time in any format (with an unwilling, “believe me,” interview with its maker), one hopes that New York prestige and the present Dylan boom will boost its reception.

In wondrous black-and-white matching the minimal performance apparatus of the time, with no narration (only a few in-film introductions) or talking heads, the film would be objective, so that, as Lerner adds, one sees and feels without being told the young singer’s increased confidence the second time around and maybe the planned goodbye on the third (except for a return for one song two years ago).

Editorializing only through the briefest of listener comments near the end and a half-minute of Joan Baez in a car, the documentary lets a surprisingly loose, even joking Dylan -- “maybe it doesn’t tell a story” -- talk through his nose his straightforward stories about social problems and reveal himself or, arguably, create the person he chose to seem to reveal.

Three-quarters of this footage is shown for the very first time and covers the majority of what concerns the subject, leaving out what “is not really worth it.” Luckily the sound (on Scotch) has remained excellent, but even then it took twenty years to bring the project to technical and legal fruition, thanks in part to executive producer Jeff Rosen, who is also the singer’s one-client manager. Rosen was also instrumental in securing rights for Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There, highly publicized but as yet unseen by Lerner although NYFF press- and industry-screened the previous day, inviting the comparisons which would have come anyway.

The scripted Haynes fiction adventurously pictures the subject as, not so much a series of public images, but distinct personalities at different times interpreted by actors of varying ages, races, genders and nationalities. The thus subjective result has its moments, but they are both good and bad and the overall impression is one of bloatedness. The more likely box-office attraction of the two, it sags after a bit, whereas this objective The Other Side of the Mirror charms from start to finish with the simplicity -- or innocence -- of the ‘Sixties, even to clean jeans, ironed blue-collar shirts, workboots, folding chairs and toilet-float mics.

Pressed about Dylan’s relevance, Lerner repeated the word eerie to describe how those lyrics of then still speak to the twenty-first century, a “something deep in culture that touches on life.” It may be hindsight that, behind the slight youth on the bare stage, senses the darker figure of the defiant plugged-in rock ‘n’ roller of 1965 onwards, begrudging the audience as well as himself in requesting an E-harmonica for two familiar acoustic solos after two loudly amplified, loudly booed numbers accompanied by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band.

It was affirmed that the droplet descending the singer’s left cheek was sweat, noticeable nowhere else in the film, but even if so, it had to be a tear of goodbye, too.

The awkward position in which friend Peter Yarrow found himself, and the unusual anger of Pete Seeger -- the axing of amplifier cables is pure myth -- are nothing to the group hostility to follow. Having given anthems to the nascent counterculture here and abroad and revolutionized the folk music scene by setting traditional methods to socially conscious lyrics, Dylan was ready to change the clothes that he once wore for black leather and then move on to other avatars.

Avoiding Pennebaker-Maysles grainy color and arm-swaying audiences, in the purity of black-and-white Lerner’s “between three and four cameras” recorded Dylan apart from any behind-the-scenes controversy brewing even there, for example among the performers who comprised the non-profit Festival’s Board of Directors. Structured by “what’s called intuition,” the result nevertheless hints, darkly or otherwise, that from day one Dylan was not to be pigeonholed as the “mirror of his generation [but] went beyond that.” If subsequent years have revealed his personal changing with the times, the world has not heeded the call to better itself. 

(Released by Columbia Records; not rated by MPAA.)

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