Like Bob Dylan, Judge Jeff Robbins was at a low point in the early 1990s. Unlike Dylan, Robbins is still trying to come out of it.
"The world don't need any more songs…They've got enough."—Bob Dylan in 1991. It would be six years after this interview before Dylan would release another album of original material.
Bob Dylan fans tired of books and documentaries rehashing his seminal 1960s years will surely welcome Bob Dylan 1990-2006: The Never Ending Narrative. As is typical for unauthorized music docs, this film is sadly short on actual music, but nearly makes up for it with some very enlightening analysis of Bob Dylan's more recent output (think the years covered in the excellent 2008 Bootleg Series release Tell Tale Signs).
Facts of the Case
Just two years after releasing one of his finest albums, 1989's Oh Mercy, the former Robert Zimmerman was at the nadir of his career. The Never Ending Narrative tells the story of how, through revisiting not only his own classic music but the music that had inspired him as a young boy, America's greatest singer-songwriter was able to rebound from a seven-year malaise to produce some of the finest music of his unparalleled career.
Though I have long considered Bob Dylan to be one of my favorite artists, in the early 1990s I was unaware that he was, as The Never Ending Narrative argues, creatively bankrupt. Nor did I particularly care. As someone who was introduced to Dylan via the masterful Oh Mercy, I spent a chunk of the early 1990s familiarizing myself to Dylan's wonderful back catalogue. Indeed, I agreed with the sentiments he shared in a 1991 interview: I didn't need more new songs from him. I was busy trying to catch up on nearly thirty years' worth of his old songs.
But for most Dylan followers, the early 1990s was a time when people started to worry, in the words of interviewee Anthony DeCurtis, that "this guy's had it." Not that the sentiment was anything new; in fact, one of the minor faults of The Never Ending Narrative (the title a play on Dylan's continuing "Never Ending Tour" that he's been on since 1988) is that the documentary fails to confront the fact that critics had been saying that about Dylan as far back as 1964, when his relatively whimsical Another Side of Bob Dylan angered those who wanted Dylan to remain a pure protest singer.
Nevertheless, The Never Ending Narrative does an admirable job of detailing Dylan's early 1990s fall—the failure of 1990's Under the Red Sky, a truly awful performance at the 1991 Grammy Awards (excerpted here with the ghastly audio and video presentation of a fifth-generation VHS dub)—while wisely presenting conflicting versions of Dylan's return to prominence.
Indeed, one of the most appealing aspects of The Never Ending Narrative is the degree to which the critics and journalists interviewed disagree; some feel that the all-covers albums Good As I Been To You (1992) and World Gone Wrong (1993) were immediately forgettable confirmations of Dylan's writer's block and growing irrelevance, while others view the albums (with the benefit of hindsight, of course) as Dylan triumphantly returning to his roots in preparation for a grand musical rebirth. What's key here is that multiple arguments are presented, each one with reasonably convincing logic behind it.
And that's precisely why The Never Ending Narrative is a pleasure for Dylan fans: These types of unauthorized documentaries, due to the small amount of music and performance footage they can actually include, live and die by the quality of their interviews. Thankfully, The Never Ending Narrative delivers the goods where it can with insightful interviews with prominent music journalists, including two of my longtime favorites, Anthony DeCurtis and Robert Christgau.
Beyond the lack of music and live footage, if there is another major complaint to be made about The Never Ending Narrative it's that the program spends so long on Dylan's lean years from 1990-1996 that it doesn't adequately devote time to Dylan's resurgent albums Time Out Of Mind, "Love and Theft", and Modern Times. But even here there is interesting material, particularly a largely dismissive attitude on the outstanding Time Out Of Mind due to what some consider its musical regurgitation of Oh Mercy (Daniel Lanois produced both albums). Elsewhere, Dylan's 2003 vanity project Masked and Anonymous is considered favorably (though pompously so, as the interviewees imply that only Dylan insiders such as themselves "get it"), and his 2004 memoir Chronicles: Volume One and current satellite radio program are deservedly praised.
Even though the majority of archival footage used here isn't that old, it's still uniformly lousy: In addition to what's here from the 1991 Grammy Awards, footage from Dylan's 1994 "MTV Unplugged" appearance and a 1993 turn at a Willie Nelson tribute concert look like they were dug out of a swamp. The sound on the few Dylan songs included isn't much better: Dylan enthusiasts will want to play their SACD copies of "Love and Theft" and Oh Mercy to cleanse themselves of the inferior stereo mixes presented here. But again, it's a minor wonder that any of this material can be represented here at all. Conversely, the modern-day interviews, which make up the vast bulk of The Never Ending Narrative look and sound fine.
There is one major extra included here: a 33:58 audio recording of a July 21, 2001 press conference recorded in Rome. Unfortunately, while the DVD promises a "relaxed and open" Dylan interview session, we are instead treated to the predictably snide and contemptuous Dylan as he laughs off or gives shallow responses to many admittedly inane questions. Mercifully, the segment ends extremely abruptly, as if whoever was recording the session simply ran out of tape.
Of more interest are a series of ten text-based "Contributor Biographies." While not innately fascinating, they do shed some light on the background of the critics and journalists interviewed. Since the interviews take up so much of the program's running time, it's a welcome extra to have the information on their backgrounds.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The lack of performance footage is an unavoidable detriment here, particularly since a key argument made as to why Dylan had bottomed out in the early 1990s was the "diabolical" nature of his concerts of that era. Without proof of such atrocities, those of us who weren't lucky enough (or unlucky enough) to have seen a show in the early 1990s have to take the critics at their word.
Also, the crucial "Bootleg Series" releases are largely ignored here, which is a shame, especially since the first three volumes (released in 1991) arguably added to the general feeling that Dylan had nothing new to offer, while the series' more regular releases of late (six sets since 1998) have undoubtedly aided Dylan's "comeback" by keeping his critical and commercial momentum going between sets of original material.
Lastly, the fact that no mention is made of the 1992 concert that brought together Tom Petty, George Harrison, Neil Young, Lou Reed, and John Mellencamp (among others) with Dylan himself to mark his 30th anniversary as a recording artist is odd. Surely someone could have made the argument that the staging of such a lavish tribute concert—of the sort usually saved for someone who is dead or dying—could have contributed to Dylan's sense of creative inertia around this time, as even an artist of his considerable powers must have thought "how can I top this?"
Does Bob Dylan's output in the years 1997-2006 represent, as The Never Ending Narrative's DVD case states, "The Greatest Musical Comeback In History"? That's hyperbolic nonsense. But this documentary does smartly examine an under-analyzed period of one of the most over-analyzed artists of our time.
Though Dylan himself would find such scrutiny of his work evidence of a World Gone Wrong, his fans will find much to Desire here. Get it? Fine, I have no "Dignity." Not guilty. This verdict is not authorized by Bob Dylan, his management, or record company.
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