Over forty years has passed since the fateful night of July 25, 1965 when Bob Dylan indelibly declared his shift from folk to rock at the Newport Folk Festival. Numerous myths have sprung from the moment that Dylan plugged in to perform an electric set of "Maggie's Farm" and "Like a Rolling Stone"—most frequently citing the boos from folk music fans who either objected to the poor sound or thought he was betraying his acoustic roots. Popular legend then describes how Dylan acquiesced to the folk purists by returning to the stage with acoustic guitar to render "Mr. Tambourine Man" and the most fitting swan song possible—"It's All Over, Baby Blue."
Until now, we've only had public access to portions of this legendary set on film, most significantly trough Martin Scorsese's eloquent No Direction Home that used outtakes from Murray Lerner's Festival. Inexplicably left on the cutting room floor was footage on Dylan's entire set, including the infamous crowd reaction, but forty-two years later we are now privileged to view this seminal event complete without commentary! It highlights Lerner's The Other Side of the Mirror, which covers Bob Dylan's Newport Folk Festival appearances from 1963 to 1965 when he metamorphosed from awkward folk singer to budding rock icon.
Although the highlights have recently been available, Lerner's Dylan centered documentary includes a more complete raw record of Dylan's Newport daytime workshops and night performances—unearthing approximately 60 minutes of previously unseen footage for the 80 minute film. Without narration or a plethora of typical talking head commentary, Lerner's minimalist black and white long takes reveal a true window into the innocence of the sixties—the jean clad youth, who somehow believed that sharing folk music lent hopes for social justice and world peace.
The 1963 footage captures a pensive Judy Collins gazing at earnest Bob Dylan spitting out a coal miner's lament ("North Country Blues") at a topical song workshop before feeling his way through the narrative anti-war "With God On Our Side" with Joan Baez harmonizing. Of course, it's well known that Baez and Dylan were lovers at the time, and hindsight analysts (and Baez herself) theorize that Dylan was using the famous folk queen to advance his own musical career—but thankfully Lerner stays with his original raw archive material, and lets modern audiences decide ... he doesn't think for ya.
What unfolds is a thoroughly fascinating study of a creative genius finding himself over the three years, inevitably breaking out of the mold and blazing his own trail. You can almost sense young Dylan's confidence begin to increase with his 1963 evening performance—his wonderful Woodie Guthrie-esque "Talkin' World War III Blues" and his iconic "Blowin' in the Wind," initially hitting high on the pop charts with Peter, Paul, and Mary's cover version and adopted universally by both the civil rights and anti-war movements of the sixties. Dylan is joined on stage for an ensemble rendition with PP&M, Baez, Pete Seeger, and the Freedom Singers. He's clearly enjoying the spotlight, and this serves as a premonition for what follows.
Dylan establishes his uniqueness at the 1964 festival. Observe befuddled Pete Seeger at Dylan's "topical workshop" try to figure out the cascading flood of metaphors pouring out when he shares a yet unrecorded "Mr. Tambourine Man" to a huge crowd of 5,000 adoring fans. Not only were those generally small intimate get-togethers, but Dylan now seems intent on stretching the boundaries by eschewing topical folk songs in favor of love songs and complex poetry. Even more revealing is what occurs immediately after Dylan's night performance of "Chimes of Freedom" where Peter Yarrow helplessly pleas for the screaming crowd to calm down and show respect for the featured singers scheduled to follow.
Sixties youth were speaking loud and clear. Odetta and topical folk songs paled when held up to Dylan in 1964, but what occured in 1965 is landmark rock history—a true breakthrough, as Dylan was about to explode on the scene with the greatest creative musical output since the days of Mozart with three albums often listed among the greatest rock abums of all time: Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde. Most rock music afficionados are familiar with the gossip surrounding the closing act of the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, but now we can see the event unfold unfettered by verbal commentary, making Murray Lerner's The Other Side of the Mirror a "must see" for music fans and a necessary addition to the DVD libraries of all Dylan fans. With Todd Haynes' I'm Not There getting a theatrical release, the timing couldn't be better.