Clocking in at a scant 83 minutes, The Other Side of the Mirror: Bob Dylan Live at the Newport Folk Festival 1963-1965 depicts one of the most fascinating evolutions in the history of popular music. Thanks to director Murray Lerner — who filmed three years’ worth of performances at the famous Rhode Island folk-music gathering in crisp black and white — we can watch Dylan gain in artistry, confidence, and stature…as well as in humor, power, and a thrilling arrogance.
In 1963, the 22-year-old Dylan is still an earnest Woody Guthrie adept, his reedy voice barely able to contain the righteous sincerity he pours into such songs as ”With God on Our Side” and ”Only a Pawn in Their Game.” By the time he sings his first signature composition, ”Blowin’ in the Wind,” it’s clear from the rousing reception that the kid already has both the crowd and his fellow performers — most of them many years his senior — in his back pocket.
By 1964, Dylan’s profile has so dominated the folk scene that Joan Baez gets big laughs from the audience just by doing an impersonation of his nasal moan, and introducing him by saying ”This is George Washington.” The latter is a neat little joke, suggesting in a mere four words that Dylan is now so well-known that Baez doesn’t even need to speak his ”real” name, and that he has become the First Father of modern folk music (he proves it later in the show by singing his ”Chimes of Freedom,” a composition both stirring and revolutionary in its visionary imagery). His incipient rock stardom is implied visually: His jeans are tighter; his mop of hair is more carefully mussed.
One year later, the transfiguration of Bob Dylan is complete. Lerner shows us glimpses of the rehearsal for what will become the scandal d’estime of the festival — an electric-guitar-powered mini-set that puts the rock in ”folk rock.” Dylan wears a puffy shirt with white polka dots (so much for the folkie uniform of plaid work shirt). Sunglasses hood his eyes. When Peter, Paul and Mary’s Peter Yarrow, before bringing Dylan out, tells the crowd that the fest is running ”way overtime” and urges fans to ”split” after the star’s performance, Dylan snickers, ”That’s what you think.” Facing the dismayed faithful in a leather jacket, Dylan spits out ”Like a Rolling Stone” over the wail of Mike Bloomfield’s guitar, and when he concludes we hear — as director Lerner describes it in a recent interview, the DVD’s only extra — ”some applause, some catcalls, some booing.”
It’s the sound of an audience being divided and reconfigured, the sound of a reaction to something utterly new. Lerner’s phrase — that Dylan became ”a high priest of this culture” — may seem overheated…until you see this footage. A-