The 'Master' was missing

Posted: September 26, 2005

The mental image is almost irresistible: Legendary filmmaker Martin Scorsese sitting down with legendary singer/songwriter/recluse Bob Dylan to talk about Dylan's life and times for "No Direction Home: Bob Dylan," the two-part "American Masters" that premieres on PBS tonight.

Too bad it doesn't seem to have happened that way.

"I've had no contact with Bob Dylan," Scorsese told reporters in Los Angeles last winter in a session at which Dylan's absence was taken for granted (though it's not uncommon for "American Masters" subjects to show up for such press conferences).

"In a sense I've had contact through [Dylan's manager] Jeff Rosen, who is his archivist and producer of the show with us, but whatever questions I usually ask, I ask through Jeff," Scorsese said.

And that's apparently just fine with the director.

"I'd not like to deal with this man directly," he said. "I'd like to create the story, to find the story, first of all, and then play it out the way I think it's right . . . I'm looking out for the understanding of how mercurially an artist like this develops. And in a way it's better I don't speak. It's better that I just deal with the material."

That material includes excerpts from 10 hours of interviews Rosen conducted with his client more than a year ago, something which, had it been made clear in the actual film, might, if anything, have contributed to the portrait of the artist as a bit of a control freak.

To put it mildly.

Not that the people behind "No Direction Home" weren't happy to go along with whatever Dylan - or Rosen - seems to have suggested.

"When Jeff first called me and invited me to look at this [archival] footage that he had been guarding all these years, quite literally, under lock and key, I burst into tears," recalled "American Masters" executive producer Susan Lacy, who said that "once a month for the last 10 years, I dutifully called [Dylan's] management and said, 'Isn't it time for an 'American Masters' film on Bob Dylan?' And when he and his management finally decided it was the right time for the film, his first feature-length biography, I got the call and my heart almost stopped."

So why now?

Lacy's not sure.

"[The] truth is with many great artists, we don't know what makes them do a lot of things they do, and he didn't tell us," she said. "He didn't tell us why. If he were here, you could ask him, but we don't have an answer to that." *

Send e-mail to graye@phillynews.com.

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