There’s a telling moment in Joel Gilbert’s new documentary Inside Bob Dylan’s Jesus Years: an interviewee says that when Dylan became a born-again Christian, he went, in two short years, from being an American Jewish hero to the “greatest apostate of the twentieth century.” Surely this is right; I know my mother has never forgiven him, and I suspect many other Jewish mothers haven’t either. What a betrayal—it’s as if Sandy Koufax pitched on Yom Kippur, or Adam Sandler recorded Christmas songs. But worse, because Dylan embodied a specific kind of liberal, American Jewish hope: that someone would speak truth to power, and that the world would listen. These were very Jewish dreams, and Dylan fulfilled them for awhile. But then, over and over again, he dashed them.
To be fair, it was Dylan himself who said “don’t follow leaders.” Dylan never wanted to be the voice of a generation, and he certainly never asked to be King of the Jews or a vessel for our hopes and dreams. His struggle with faith was part of his being a flawed person. If during the Jesus years, Dylan fell off the pedestal, it’s our own fault for putting him on it. But the question remains: Why did Dylan temporarily convert to Christianity in 1979, and record two religious albums proclaiming the word of God? It remains an enduring mystery, and for many Jews, the ultimate shande far di goyim: one of “our” greatest heroes becoming one of them.
Unfortunately, Inside Bob Dylan’s Jesus Years doesn’t answer these questions. After two hours of seemingly unedited interviews, ludicrously amateurish clip art, and cliched religious imagery, viewers emerge as unenlightened as we were at the outset. Widely advertised (for a documentary), Jesus Years is an unauthorized biographical film; Dylan did not participate, did not grant an interview, and did not even authorize the use of his music. It is, paradoxically, the consummate Bob Dylan film: To reference two recent efforts, the artist is so masked and anonymous, he’s not there.
It’s also just not a very good movie. The film can’t resist illustrating any point in the cheesiest way possible; when someone says “Jews,” we get a picture of Hasidim at the Western wall; when someone says “cops,” a clip-art picture of a police car; and the less said about the pictures of Biblical scenes, the better. The film’s director/interviewer, Joel Gilbert—mysteriously trying to look just like the Bob Dylan of the 1970s—inserts himself needlessly into frame after frame while giving us no reason to care about his own narcissistic journey through music studios and Hollywood homes. Art this bad can make religious people look dumb, or crazy, or both.
And yet, Jesus Years nearly succeeds in spite of itself, leaving the viewer with a certain appreciation of religious sentiment—coupled with a puzzlement at how the religious and secular seem to speak two different languages. The film’s spiritual center is Pastor Bill Dwyer of Los Angeles’s Vineyard Christian Fellowship, who Dylan called in late 1978, seeking counseling (at least according to Dwyer). Dwyer is a down-to-earth, no-bullshit kind of guy; at least as represented in the film, he’s more interested in matters of the heart than those of the hereafter, and it’s no surprise that Dylan, like many other Hollywood celebrities, reached out to him. (Then again, Dwyer’s answers to those in need relied heavily on the Book of Revelation, not exactly a handbook for trauma counseling.)
But Dwyer is cagey; like a good pastor, he doesn’t violate confidence, and we’re left clueless as to the exact nature of his relationship with Dylan. It’s not until the very end of the film—long after I would have stopped watching had I not been reviewing it—that we get any inkling of why Dylan reached out at all. Only Dylanologist A.J. Weberman mentions, in passing, that Dylan was addicted to heroin in the late 1970s, still reeling from his recent divorce and dislocation. He was, indeed, a lost soul—and Jesus found him.
In one of the few snippets of actual Bob Dylan footage in the film—included presumably because it aired on network television and is not owned by Dylan—he says that he “never cared too much for preachers who were just looking for a contribution,” but that he found something real in Dwyer’s teaching of Jesus. This is an illuminating moment. Throughout his career, Dylan has embraced both sincerity and dissimulation; his latest incarnation, as a moustachioed journeyman musician, is made of equal parts authenticity and con. What his earnest early fans never realized is that this was true from the beginning. Here was Robert Zimmerman playing at Woody Guthrie—or, as Todd Haynes’s brilliant I’m Not There suggested, a minstrel version of an African-American folksinger. Subsequent roles as an acerbic hipster and airy country music crooner similarly blended directness and diversion, truth and show.
In Jesus, Dylan seems to have found something authentic—and here is where, for me, Jesus Years became interesting. The film consists largely of a series of interviews with true believers—many of whom are Jews. It’s disconcerting and just plain weird to hear New York Yiddish accents testify about being born again. But underneath all the weirdness, I got the sense that all the people being interviewed really do believe. They’ve had some kind of genuine experience, which they’ve interpreted according to Christian mythology and symbolism. As Dwyer eloquently describes, these are people who were in great pain, and came to know great love through powerful religious experiences. These are not vulnerable sheep taken advantage of by profiteers; they are people who were hurt, and who found healing in Christianity.
Many Jews will probably find it impossible to look beyond this transparent attempt at outreach. We’re scarred and traumatized by two thousand years of Christian hegemony, anti-Semitism, and proselytizing. We’re too accustomed to the endless efforts to convert us—and Bob Dylan’s Jesus Years often seems to be one—to actually listen to the message. And indeed, when Dylan himself preached from the stage in 1979 and 1980, many fans felt the same way. The guy seemed to have fallen off his rocker.
Of course, all fans like to imagine that they share some secret bond with their idols. With Dylan, who always seems to be in on the con when he’s not perpetrating one himself, I find myself thinking “I get it” even when no one else does: like him, I see the hypocrisy; like him, I think I can understand the appeal of authentic religious experience in the context of superficiality and doublespeak. This was 1978, after all; the high water mark of disco, post-Watergate malaise, and post-1960s hangover. Everyone seemed to be on the make, or drowning in drugs and decadence. Some of the doughy-eyed interviewees in Jesus Years don’t seem to get it—but, I imagine, I do. Here was something real.
Not surprisingly, the film spends very little time discussing why Dylan left Jesus—and turned to Chabad-Lubavitch, no less—after just two years and two and a half albums. Again, Weberman sheds the only light on the subject: Dylan came to believe that his Christian advisors were exploiting him. Dwyer, too, says that he “became concerned” that some preachers were over-publicizing Dylan’s initially private conversion. What a disappointment that must have been: the old time religion turned out to be yet another con. No wonder Dylan spent most of the 1980s wandering in the pop wilderness, only regaining his footing at the end of the decade, when he got back to musical basics and rediscovered the authenticity of folk music and the blues.
Inside Bob Dylan’s Jesus Years is more a symptom of this pattern than a study of it, exploiting Dylan’s fame to get Jews like me to sit through testimonies of salvation in Christ. Its warped perspective gives the sense that Jews for Jesus is a nationwide force rather than a peculiar outlier, and that the secular world is coextensive with aimlessness and lies. Yet in objectifying and exploiting Dylan, it also subtly manages to humanize him.