Bob Dylan has been more analyzed, debated and written about than any other artist. Countless books, films and television programs have already documented this living legend’s musical career, so what more can be said about his legacy?
Well, nothing, according to Murray Lerner. The director takes an unconventional approach in his documentary, "The Other Side of the Mirror: Live at the Newport Folk Festival 1963–1965," by avoiding any narration in this three-year chronicle of Dylan’s rise as a folk star and quasi-political figure during performances at the Newport Folk Festivals. Although omniscient commentary is the modus operandi of documentaries, it’s in outside silence that Lerner’s work succeeds, allowing viewers to witness the artist’s transition, not only from acoustic into electric, but also from a self-deprecating folkie to a confident musical powerhouse.
Lerner’s artistic vision is seen within the first 10 minutes of "The Other Side of the Mirror" in the juxtaposition of a 1965 performance of "All I Really Want to Do" with a 1963 workshop performance of "North Country Blues." In the ’65 presentation, Dylan’s voice is confident, its salty edge cut with a bluegrass flavor, and his black-clad figure commands attention from the hundreds of young and adoring fans sprawled across the lawn in front of the stage. Lerner contrasts this youthful climate with Dylan’s ’63 workshop performance, where the visibly uncomfortable artist keeps his eyes closed, avoiding the gazes of the crowd of 50-somethings looking on.
Lerner immediately follows this daytime scene with Dylan’s evening performance of "With God on Our Side." During this song, Dylan’s voice is weak and barely audible beneath longtime compatriot Joan Baez’s invasive vibrato, and his physical stance is submissive to Baez’s already hunched stature. Once again, Lerner contrasts this with a 1964 performance of the same song. This time, however, Dylan’s steely voice, Beat poet-inspired garb and continual smirk are the dominant elements during this performance. The transformation of a 23-year-old kid, in a single year, could not be more visually arresting.
"The Other Side of the Mirror" also details how Dylan established himself as an effective political commentator. In his 1963 performance of "Talkin’ World War III Blues," Dylan muses about the difficulty to establish connections with other individuals in a world consumed by materialism and political fear. Lyrics like "In my Cadillac/ Good car to drive after a war" and "He screamed a bit and away he flew/ He thought I was a Communist" incited cheers and laughs from the audience. Dylan also showcases his sympathy with the oppressed during a performance of "Only a Pawn in Their Game," a song that tracks the murder of civil rights leader Medgar Evers. He sings "You’re better than them/ You been born with white skin," mocking the white supremacists who convinced their "pawn," Byron De La Beckwith, to kill Evers.
The pivotal scene of the entire documentary, though, is the musician’s 1965 electrically-backed performance. In just a few electric twangs of guitar, Dylan revolutionized the folk music scene with his performances of "Maggie’s Farm" and "Like a Rolling Stone," unarguably the artist’s most popular song to this day.
The songs’ bombastic presentations, however, were not met with the enthusiastic cheers of Dylan’s acoustic performances, but instead with a mixture of boos and applause. Although the musician dons his traditional harmonica and acoustic guitar for encore performances of "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "It’s All Over Baby Blue," Dylan’s transformation into a musical giant now seems complete. His songs are still poignantly bittersweet, but Dylan now possesses an aloof charisma that catapults him into an even more godlike status, to be loved and feared.
His guitar skills may not be perfect and his voice may not be angelic, but to this day, Bob Dylan has maintained that iconic status. Though Lerner’s documentary offers no narrative insight into the Newport Folk Festival performances, "The Other Side of the Mirror" beautifully captures Dylan’s rise as a political and musical monument.