EARLY in Martin Scorsese’s new Netflix film about Bob Dylan, The Rolling Thunder Revue, the singer makes a typically laconic pronouncement: “Life isn’t about finding yourself or finding anything. Life is about creating yourself and creating things.” In those few words, the world’s most mysterious and famous living performer sums up what makes an artist – almost any artist – tick. He also offers a lifeline to those trying to find their feet. Don’t be restricted by the circumstances in which you were born. Decide instead how you want to be. Above all, don’t look back.

Scorsese’s film is not quite such a straight documentary of Dylan’s never-ending 1970s bus tour across America as it seems. To the uninitiated, like me, you’d never guess unless told that it includes fictional characters, such as an egotistical filmmaker who claims the material was wholly his (played by Bette Midler’s husband Martin von Haselberg), a mafia-style impresario whose character should be given his own Sopranos-style series, and a politician allegedly under Jimmy Carter’s wing. But despite the sleight of hand and mischievous illusions, there is no challenging the footage of Dylan and his entourage of brilliant musicians as filmed on stage or behind the scenes. By the end of two hours and 22 minutes, you almost feel you were on the road with them.

In a riveting sequence of scenes you see Joan Baez and Dylan rubbing along like sandpaper, the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg shocking and delighting suburban housewives, and the otherworldly Joni Mitchell playing her guitar as if stroking a dog. Throughout, Dylan, his face painted white, and wearing a hat dancing with flowers, commands attention. At this point in his career he was no longer a youngster, but he performs like a sprite, hypnotic in his intensity. When the camera cuts to him reflecting today, at the age of 78, on those troubadour years, he is cryptic, understated, and electrifying.

I watched this film in the company of a man whose entire adulthood has been lived with one eye on every move this musical hero has made. The house is filled with virtually everything Dylan ever recorded. Thanks to Scorsese, the soundtrack to the film – 14 discs – is already winging its way towards us, making the sound library nigh on complete.

The effect Dylan had on folk like my husband who came of age in the sixties and have never lost their faith in him, is a phenomenon worthy of scientific research. On this politically engaged generation he exerted a mesmerising allure that no-one can gainsay, even if – for argument’s sake – you prefer the growl of Tom Waits. Yet to watch him again in concert is to be reminded why his music reaches so deep, and why, 40 or 50 years on, Dylan remains, for many baby boomers, the biggest star in the cultural universe.

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The music and lyrics are not just unforgettable, but hard-hitting too, while his performing persona is a work of art in its own right. He is a masterclass in dedication, energy, and unshakeable self-belief. For entertainment value and work ethic, he is beyond compare.

Seeing him on and off stage reveals how a first-class imaginative talent works. For a start, it is all-consuming. The burning need to communicate is the core of any serious artist, and the way Dylan has conducted himself shows this impulse must be guarded, stoked, and trusted. That’s what is striking about the assured young singer on screen, who takes up little space and is often silent, yet exudes a remarkable aura. For would-be musicians, writers, or artists of any kind, there is a lesson here, about not letting the world encroach on you. The detachment you find in many talented people is not aloofness but an observational habit, wrapped in a protective buffer zone that allows only a few to get close.

There’s a stronger message too. Throughout his career Dylan has been actively and crusadingly engaged with the world around him. Whether it’s protest songs highlighting those wrongly imprisoned or denied justice, or railing against war or tyranny, hypocrisy or greed, he has had his eyes wide open. Not for him a retreat into the folksy backwoods, or knee-jerk sentimentalism.

Most inspirational of all, to my mind, is that that he is self-taught. A man with no qualifications beyond a driving licence has won the Nobel Prize for Literature, an Oscar and Grammys galore. You can’t help wondering if his lack of schooling has been a positive advantage to original, clear-headed thinking.

Is he a genius? To his fans, there’s no doubt about it. Maybe, however, it’s easier to ask, if he isn’t a genius, who is? That he remains a guiding star and perennial source of fascination for his contemporaries is understandable. They have shared the same political and cultural landmarks, and he speaks for their age. Yet his influence should also encourage those just starting out. For anyone feeling suffocated or stressed by the pressure to achieve, he shows the possibilities that might lie ahead by going your own sweet way.