FIVE MINUTES INTO Jennifer Lebeau’s Bob Dylan documentary Trouble No More, a strange thing happens. We’ve seen a dusty-looking Bob Dylan lead his white-shirt-and-waistcoated band and small gospel choir through a mean and funky 1980 rehearsal of Jesus Met The Woman At The Well, plus a taunting live performance of Are You Ready, a fiery Armageddon blues, from Buffalo’s Memorial Auditorium in April, 1980, but we’re awaiting context – a voiceover or a talking-head to locate us in the story, give us some background and explain how we arrived here.
Instead, as the roar of Dylan’s crowd fades, the film cuts to the dark interior of a church, a man in a green, flared velvet suit walks through a shaft of murky yellow sunlight, and up to a raised lectern where he utters his first words: “Thou hypocrite! first cast the beam from thy own eye!”
So begins the second strange narrative of this peculiar and beguiling concert film, a bonus DVD in the Deluxe version of 2017’s Bootleg 13 box set now to be broadcast separately on BBC4 on Good Friday. It’s a series of sermons, written by the New York-based writer and critic Luc Sante, and delivered to a seemingly empty church by a fire-and-brimstone preacher played by Oscar-nominated actor and avowed Dylan fan Michael Shannon.
Lebeau, who began working with the Dylan camp in 1993, and has directed many of the documentaries that have accompanied previous Bootleg releases, admits that Trouble No More has been her most ambitious project to date.
“The idea was to let the performances speak for themselves,” Lebeau told MOJO. “This is Bob playing with one of his greatest bands ever: Jim Keltner, Fred Tackett, Spooner Oldham, Tim Drummond. It felt like gold all around. So, we wanted this to be about performance. Plus, there wasn’t much interest in what people had to say about this period, especially as we weren't going to hear from Bob himself. So we approached Luc Sante to write these genius sermons that would intersperse the songs, and we knew Bob wanted an actor of really great calibre and intensity to deliver them.”
“Apparently, Bob and his manager, Jeff Rosen, were scratching their heads, wondering who could play the preacher,” explains Michael Shannon, “and Jeff said, I was watching this movie, 99 Homes, last night and there’s this guy in it, Michael Shannon… Well, apparently Dylan said, Oh man, if you could get Michael Shannon, that would be amazing. When I heard that I was like, Bob Dylan knows who I am!? I could die a happy man, except, I have kids, so… but otherwise, yes, I could die a happy man.”
The sermons are clearly intended to mirror and illuminate Dylan’s performances, with Shannon’s preacher railing against wealthy hypocrites, junk food, capitalism, and “demon alcohol” as Dylan sings of retribution and salvation.
“You see the power and the pull of what Dylan was feeling at the time”, says Lebeau, “and it did feel important to get the sequence right so the sermons had some connection with the songs.”
“The preacher goes on his own journey through these sermons,” adds Shannon, “so that by the end of the film he’s kind of finished. He’s not going to give another sermon after this. That’s kind of like what Bob did. Bob got into this period, was really into it, and then he kind of stopped: ‘OK, I got what I needed out of this. I’m going to move on.’ I wanted the preacher to feel like that too: I don’t want this anymore.”
Possibly as a comment on the relatively small audiences that Dylan was playing to on his gospel tour (2000 capacity theatres as opposed to 15,000 capacity arenas) Lebeau also made the decision to film Shannon’s preacher without a visible congregation.
“During this period, Dylan took everything back down to an intimate level,” says Lebeau. “I didn't want any distractions from the intensity of the preacher’s words, but I also wanted the viewer to ask, Where are his congregation?”
“Ultimately, he’s in an empty room,” says Shannon. “There’s nobody there. There’s a melancholy and a symbolism about that: You’ve finally got a man who’s speaking the truth of what Christianity is supposed to be, and there’s nobody there to hear it.”
Arena: Bob Dylan – Trouble No More will screen on BBC4 on Friday, March 30, 2018.