The opening sequence of ‘No Direction Home’ masterfully sets up the roots of Bob Dylan’s life. It gives us a glimpse into his genius, his unpredictability, his passion for music among other things. However, the function of any good opening sequence does not stop at establishing what meets the eye, it also sets ups the tone of what is to come.
The sequence opens with Dylan’s performance of the titular track ‘No Direction Home’ and it slowly transitions into a montage that sets up Dylan’s hometown of Hibbing, Minnesota. The transition is aided by a combination of shots of “Trees” that set up the narration, wherein we hear Dylan speak in abstract terms about time. The fact that the opening sequence features Dylan talk about time in a very absolute but abstract sense sets up the tone of this documentary. It gives us a peak in to Dylan’s mind, how he makes sense of this world and how he looks at things. This way, the protagonist, or in this case, Dylan’s character is very well established in the first few moments of the sequence.
What follows in this intricately woven together sequence can be broken down into the following categories:
Essentially there are 4 parts to the opening sequence that helps us get an idea of how the rest of the documentary is going to flow, they are:
a) By introducing Dylan’s thoughts on time and how he discovered a guitar at his house when he was 10, Scorsese and the editor set up a pathway for us into understanding when exactly “Music” took a serious grip on Dylan’s life. Also, using the track “Drifting too far from the shore” as an underscore works beautifully when we learn that it was this song that peaked Dylan’s interest in music.
b) When Dylan talks about the “sound of the record” he clearly establishes his deeper and more intense passion for music. He doesn’t just stop at calling it a good song, or one that captivated him. He talks about it like it were an out of body experience, specially when he refers to how he felt that he was “born to the wrong parents”.
c) His thoughts on his hometown. How it was ravaged by mining companies and the lack of an ideology; all of this exposes Dylan’s want to express or be noticed. His thoughts about his hometown suggests that there is some kind of disappointment within him about the town. However it is his talk about the “pits” that cements this charge as it goes to show the subtext behind how ‘there was no chance to rebel’. It almost suggests that here is a man who always wanted to venture out into something bigger and more challenging.
d) Finally, his dispassionate talk about his initial working days shows his different approach towards work. He talks about “Discipline of hard work or something, the merits of employment”. Here is the first instance where we get to see the rebel in Dylan. The way puts the statement out suggests that he was never cut out for a life in that town and the journey of exploring the musician within him started at that very point.
What’s fascinating to note is the way the story is paced together gives us a clear trajectory into Dylan’s early life. This must have been a conscious choice from both the director and the editor to pace the story in such a sequence, thereby all the beats of Dylan’s character gets established effectively within the first few minutes of the film.
Cinematography, Editing & Sound
The shot of the trees and Dylan talking about his early years seem to be isolated from all the noise of the real world. They are an abstract expression of his lonliness. That sequence is in stark contrast to the opening shot of Dylan performing ‘No Direction Home’, this suggests the unpredictability of this character’s journey. This way, the cinematography has helped in establishing some key story beats.
The sound score of the wind waltzing in while Dylan talks about ‘time’ and the sound score that followed to set up the slow paced nature of his middle class upbringing. They establish a tenderness, innocence, a lack of activity and a cause for his passion. The sound scope also aids and shifts between the 4 story beats as expressed above.
It is the piecing together of Dylan’s story that gives us an agency into the story. Editing here has established a chronological flow of Dylan’s character. This way, we as a viewer are far better engaged with the story.
The character of Dylan himself becomes an important element in the story. Considering the story is about Dylan, how they established him in the initial sequence was key to the success of engaging people with this documentary. Also, to reveal the “star” and the “person” in the sequence is a masterstroke as it rips the veil behind the stardom and forces us to take a more sensitive peak into Dylan’s character. Also, the nonchalance with which Dylan engages with camera adds the element of mystery and unpredictability.
In all, the opening sequence stitched together by Schoonmaker and Scorsese gives us a peak into the wondrous world of Bob Dylan’s mind and genius. However, it also drops hints into the reason and form behind the music, the madness, the destruction and the passion that is to follow in the Bob Dylan story.