Judge Victor Valdivia's stint as a Christian evangelist is related in his new DVD, Ow! That Holy Water Really Burns!
Busy being born…again!
For yet another unauthorized bargain-price release about an artist with fans devoted enough to purchase just about anything with his name slapped on it, Inside Bob Dylan's Jesus Years: Busy Being Born…Again! isn't entirely without merit. Lord knows it isn't great, or even all that good, but it does have two advantages over other far more mercenary titles such as the unwatchable Down the Tracks: people who actually know and have worked with Dylan are interviewed, and it covers a period of Dylan's musical history that hasn't been dissected to death. Only hardcore Dylan fans will want to watch it, and even they might have a hard time getting all the way through it, but if they do they might find a few moments of valuable insight scattered about.
Inside Bob Dylan's Jesus Years attempts to reassess one of the most controversial periods of Dylan's musical career. In 1979, Dylan released Slow Train Coming, an album made up entirely of songs devoted to evangelical Christianity. This was not just an album of gospel covers (as Elvis Presley had done) or an album of gospel-inflected pop (as Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin had done) but original compositions of outright evangelical proselytizing, matched with some of the most focused songwriting and full production Dylan had used in years. The album was one of the best-selling in Dylan's career, and its first single "Gotta Serve Somebody" cracked the Top 10 and earned Dylan his first Grammy award. Nonetheless, many longtime fans were genuinely bewildered. How could Dylan, who was raised Jewish and who had spent most of the '60s and the '70s as the voice of the (presumably) anti-religious counterculture, become not just a Christian but a hard-line evangelical one? What followed were two more albums of even more uncompromising Christian music: Saved (1980) and Shot of Love (1981). Each subsequent record drew decreasing sales and scathing critical notices, but Dylan remained adamant, even refusing to perform many of his older well-known songs in concert. It wasn't until 1983's Infidels that Dylan left Christianity and returned to making secular music, but by then his Christian phase would taint the response to all of his subsequent material for years. So despite the claim in this DVD's liner notes that those albums "are today regarded as among the best of his career," Dylan's fans are still fiercely divided in their opinions of his Christian material even now.
Does Inside Bob Dylan's Jesus Years help in finally coming to a conclusion about this music? Only somewhat. Of course, since this DVD is unauthorized, there are no interviews with Dylan, nor are any of his compositions used. Instead, Highway 61 Revisited, a Dylan tribute group fronted by the film's director Joel Gilbert, is heard performing gospel standards, although none of these songs were ever heard on any of Dylan's Christian albums. Surprising for a release of this type, however, is that some notable Dylan collaborators were interviewed. Producer Jerry Wexler, keyboardist Spooner Oldham, and singer Regina McCrary all relate their memories from the recording sessions and concerts. Even more interesting is that Gilbert has managed to track down some rare interview and news footage from the era. Dylan is seen stating bluntly that he doesn't care who doesn't like his new music, while aggrieved Dylan fans are shown storming out of his first '79 concert (in San Francisco, no less), railing that they're finished with him. There are also interviews with Dylan's pastor Bill Dwyer and his Bible school teacher Al Kasha, both of whom recall Dylan as bright, eager to learn, and genuinely committed to his new faith, although he still frequently showed up for Bible class in rock star sunglasses and hats.
Ironically enough, the fascinating revelations only highlight this film's shortcomings. Gilbert is a surprisingly adept interviewer and he asks smart questions and extracts revealing answers from his subjects. Unfortunately, he isn't a very good storyteller. The film is disorganized and sketchy, spending far too much time on some subjects while shortchanging others. Most of this DVD, for instance, is spent on Slow Train Coming, with only a few minutes devoted to discussing Saved and surprisingly nothing about Shot of Love. We never learn why Dylan suddenly made the right turn into evangelical Christianity, although most fans suspect it had to do with a painful 1977 divorce and the critical and commercial failure of some of his late '70s projects. There is also nothing in the film about why Dylan ultimately abandoned his evangelical beliefs or how they shaped the music he made afterwards.
If Gilbert is an erratic documentarian, he's an even worse visual stylist. When Wexler recalls how Dylan wanted to use woodwinds, strings, and a choir for their recordings, Gilbert inserts photos of woodwinds, string instruments, and a choir. It would seem that anyone who watches this DVD will know what woodwinds are, but Gilbert just can't take that chance. This is by far one of Gilbert's most irritating gimmicks: whenever possible, he inserts either redundant pictures or silly cartoons. Whatever humor he attempts to extract from these wears thin very quickly. Also, Gilbert's practice of constantly putting himself in the film, either in footage showing him walking around various locations or listening raptly as interviewees speak, does him no favors. As a result, Inside Bob Dylan's Jesus Years winds up being the kind of documentary that actually works better if you watch it with your eyes closed. What would be good enough as a podcast becomes increasingly insufferable accompanied by Gilbert's visual stunts.
The technical characteristics of the DVD are mediocre as well. The interviews and modern-day footage were cheaply lit and shot on VHS. The full-screen transfer is grainy and washed out, and the fuzzy archival footage actually looks better. The Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo mix is decent enough. The extras are downright peculiar, in particular the two featurettes. "Bob Dylan 1978 World Tour" (14:33) covers the album and tour that preceded Dylan's Christian conversion. "Dylan and Hurricane Carter in Prison 1976" (5:54) is about Dylan's concert appearance on behalf of the unjustly convicted boxer (whose life story later inspired the film The Hurricane). Both are revealing enough, and the second even contains an interview with Carter himself, but they fall outside the era presented in the main documentary, making them completely out of place. Also included are a photo gallery and downloadable MP3 files of the music heard in the film, if anyone really likes it that much.
All of which means that Inside Bob Dylan's Jesus Years isn't nearly as valuable as it could have been in reassessing this turbulent period of his career. It actually has enough moments of insight and astuteness that make it worth a look for hardcore Dylan fans, but it's unlikely they'll actually want to own it, because it's not good enough to reward repeated viewings. It's also not good enough to entice viewers who know nothing of Dylan's music; they'll want to start with the records instead. Inside Bob Dylan's Jesus Years is ultimately guilty of not living up to its potential.
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