Bob Dylan In The Movies

The legendary Bob Dylan turned 70 years old on May 24th. This article takes a close look at his association with the movies... Bob Dylan had his first acting gig aged 21 on British TV with a play called Madhouse on Castle Street. His eponymously-titled first album had been released but few people in Britain would have known him; this was a few months before Freewheelin€™ hit the shelves and Dylan-fever (which is like Beatlemania, only less wild and more pretentious) swept the Western world. He was intended to play the lead but quickly proved that he wasn€™t interested in learning lines and was perhaps more interested in his recent discovery of cannabis, so David Warner was hired as the lead and Dylan provided a Greek chorus to the action. In its wisdom, the BBC has long since destroyed the footage so it€™s not easy to gauge how people would have responded to this mysterious youth. At the end of the play he performed €œBlowin€™ in the Wind,€ and it was one of the first times anyone had heard it. That, at least, must have made an impression. There has been a crossover between actors and musicians on screen since the dawn of sound: musicals inspired all sorts of cross-breeding and occasionally a singer like Frank Sinatra would turn out to be a pretty good actor too; if one wasn€™t, like Elvis, the movies would still generally be hits. The rock €˜n€™ roll royalty of the €˜60s almost all tried their hand at acting; John Lennon did How I Won The War for Richard Lester, and Mick Jagger did Performance for Nicolas Roeg. Later, David Bowie, Lou Reed and Paul Simon would follow suit. Aside from the built-in fanbase, the logic seems to be that someone who can give a captivating performance on stage must be able to hold an audience€™s attention on screen, although this logic hasn€™t always held up. Mick Jagger on stage was and is an explosion of sex and energy and fun. On screen he€™s like a negative of himself, and most of his contemporaries were no better. How much of Dylan€™s public persona was a performance already is a good question, and 1967 produced two documentaries that gave a sense of that persona, and the music, in transition. There was Murray Lerner€™s concert movie Festival, one of the first of its kind, which along with Dylan showed acts like Donovan and Joan Baez at the Newport Folk Festival from the years 1963 to 1966. Though the film is lacking in complete performances (the full performances were finally released in 2005 as The Other Side of the Mirror), it offers a fascinating time-capsule of that period, and that transition. Over the three years his image shifts from the giggling, youthful kid young audiences adored to a jaded, exhausted figure, deliberately interacting less with the audience and attempting to shift the focus back from himself to his music; this didn€™t work, and when he did an electric version of €œMaggie€™s Farm€ the crowd, famously, booed. There was Dylan in sunglasses and a leather jacket with an electric guitar and a band behind him; where had their saviour gone? This turning of the tide is also captured in D.A. Pennebaker€™s seminal documentary Don€™t Look Back, also released in 1967 and filmed on Dylan€™s 1965 tour of England. It opens, significantly, with the famous music video for €œSubterranean Homesick Blues,€ one of his first electric tracks. Many of those who idolised the younger Dylan saw it as deliberate defiance; announcing at the start of the movie (and as the opening track on the album Bringing It All Back Home, released just before the tour) that this guy wasn€™t singing €˜finger-pointing€™ songs any more, and his lyrics were increasingly oblique and surreal. The songs were getting more mysterious, and so was Dylan. The Dylan in the movie is in the business of shaking off his old persona, and responding to increasing pressure from journalists to account for himself by becoming increasingly hard to pin down. Aside from some concert footage from the Royal Albert Hall (it would be the last year that Dylan associated performing with smiling) most of the film takes places backstage and in hotels and parties. Physically and in voice Dylan seems right in the middle of those two iconic €˜60s figures he embodied; between the smirking folkster with puppy-fat cheeks and the mystical rocker of 1966. In the film, Dylan is subject to journalists€™ questions everywhere he goes, and generally responds with questions of his own, with deliberately obscure answers, with confrontation or simply with ways to keep himself amused. One journalist from Time magazine rubs him up the wrong way and Dylan rants at him like an angsty teenager. He doesn€™t always come out of the movie well, but by this point he probably had already realised the gulf between the way he thought he was presenting himself and the way he was being perceived. Pennebaker would follow Dylan back to the UK the following year for the British leg of his €™66 tour. He was joined, famously, for the second set by The Hawks, who would soon achieve their own fame as The Band. The tour was notorious, and the second set was met at every performance with boos from the audience; walkouts were even planned, so people with tickets would go see the first acoustic set, then make a point of leaving when Dylan returned with an electric guitar. Many Dylan fans would now refer to this period and the albums that followed (Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde) as his creative peak, but with Dylan the response to the music is constantly tied up, amongst his idolaters, with the response to him. When Pennebaker cut the movie together Dylan thought it was too similar to Don€™t Look Back, so re-edited it himself despite having no experience with editing or filmmaking. The result was an hour-long, shambling and at times incoherent film called Eat the Document, which has seldom been seen outside of bootleg versions. Although it€™s shambolic (and Dylan couldn€™t edit) it offers an intriguing insight into that tour. Unlike Don€™t Look Back, this one is in colour, and features the opinions of the audiences leaving the concerts (mostly negative, many vehemently so). Almost all the songs that are in the movie are from the electric set (€œMr Tambourine Man€ being a notable exception), offering a very different look at his music than the previous documentary. While drugs were floating around during Don€™t Look Back they feel like a much bigger influence in Eat the Document, both on the style of the documentary and on most of the people in front of the camera; the bootleg is usually accompanied by the famous footage of Dylan and John Lennon wasted in the back of a limousine. And then Dylan vanished. He was in a motorcycle accident €“ the seriousness of which remains ambiguous to this day €“ and withdrew from his tour and public life. He wouldn€™t hit the road again for 8 years, and between Don€™t Look Back and Eat the Document it€™s not difficult to see why. No one could stay on that pedestal for long, and Dylan had a strong stomach to survive as long as he did. He wanted to get away from everything, his musical style changed again and he withdrew from the public€™s gaze. Somewhere along the line, he decided to give acting a go. In 1972 he approached Sam Peckinpah about the possibility of doing the music for his new movie, Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. After hearing Dylan play (at first he didn€™t know who he was) Peckinpah signed him up to do the soundtrack, but Dylan wanted a part too, and screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer suggested Alias, a young knife-wielding killer. He was soon cast in the role. The production was not an easy one; Peckinpah kept having fall-outs with MGM and never got to do some necessary re-shoots, and Wurlitzer was so unhappy with the changes to the script that when he published a version of his original draft his introduction, detailing its history, failed to mention Peckinpah€™s name once. Dylan wasn€™t happy either; neither he nor Peckinpah seemed to know what to do with his character, whose part had been truncated. When it was released, in 1973, it was in a version recut by the studio from over two hours to 106 minutes, and Peckinpah disowned it. Eventually his original preview cut would be shown on TV in 1988, running about 122 minutes, and later released on a DVD with a new, remastered but inferior 115-minute cut. Dylan€™s music suits the movie perfectly; it€™s a great, unique western score, although not everyone thought so. €˜The title song by Bob Dylan is quite simply awful,€™ said Roger Ebert in his review, adding €˜He plays a character called Alias, and should have used one.€™ Ebert is harsh on the movie, which especially in the longer cut includes moments of startling beauty, and some of the great editing and characters we expect from Peckinpah. The most famous song written for the movie would go on to become one of Dylan€™s most famous: €œKnockin€™ On Heaven€™s Door,€ employed perfectly for Slim Picken€™s death scene. The two central performances, from James Coburn and Kris Kristofferson, are particularly strong; it may be Coburn€™s best role and Kristofferson is a perfect demonstration of a singer being well cast in an acting role. Dylan, alas, does not demonstrate this. Part of his problem is, of course, that he€™s Bob Dylan. He doesn€™t look like a killer, he looks like Bob Dylan, so what€™s he doing throwing that knife about? But that€™s not the only problem: it€™s not that he can€™t act, it€™s that he appears to choose not to. He€™s a distraction, and in a way the movie€™s other flaws are what stop him sinking it. Were the movie otherwise perfect he would stop it dead, but given that it€™s a movie that will never be perfect (in some ways it is, and always will be, incomplete) he almost gets away with it, and he has a certain weird charm that, though it doesn€™t really justify his casting in the movie, suggests he could have been well cast in a different movie. The funniest scene in the film, intentionally or not, has Coburn instructing him to read a shelf of tinned products, and the inflection he gives to words like €˜baked beans€™ and €˜beef stew€™ is hilarious. Having already lost the respect of many music critics (intentionally, as some perceived it) with his album Self-Portrait, Dylan was now being almost unanimously poorly-received in Pat Garrett... and the soundtrack album, entirely by Dylan, was a disappointment to fans expecting another €˜proper€™ Dylan album after a 3-year gap. Whether prompted by the lack of success, and difficult production, of Pat Garrett or not, in 1973 he was back recording another album and planning to tour again. In 1974 he toured with The Band, and in 1975 he put together what would become the Rolling Thunder Revue, in which he toured with an entourage of friends and musicians both from his past and with whom he was working on his new album, Desire. The line-up included Joan Baez, Roger McGuinn, Ramblin€™ Jack Elliot, T-Bone Burnett, Ronee Blakely, Scarlet Rivera, Rob Stoner and Bob Neuwirth. At the last minute, Sam Shepard was asked to come along too, and write a movie that they could put together while they travel. The two references Dylan gave Shepard were Marcel Carn這s Children of Paradise and François Truffaut€™s Shoot the Piano Player, two classic French movies which were probably not knocked off as an afterthought to a music tour. Shepard did write material but quickly realised that he wasn€™t really necessary, as the scenes that were being filmed were almost all improvised and out of his control: eventually Dylan would take both writing and directing credit, although the finished movie has little evidence of either a script or direction. Over 100 hours of footage was shot, both improvised cinema-verité sequences and performance footage, and following the tour Dylan, who had edited Eat the Document himself, decided to edit it into his own movie. It clocked in at almost four hours, was released in 1978, and was called Renaldo and Clara. And almost as quickly, it disappeared again. It was savaged by critics: Pauline Kael observed, €˜ has given himself more tight close-ups than any actor can have had in the whole history of the movies,€™ and responds to his comment in the film that he €˜wants to be buried in an unmarked grave€™ with €˜Of course. That€™s why he€™s made a four-hour movie about himself.€™ The finished film, it must be said, is for hardcore Dylanologists. Because there was no fixed idea what anybody was doing when the film was being made, nor any fixed style (it had four different camera crews) Dylan tries to make it work by editing it in a non-linear, thematic fashion. At one point Allen Ginsberg opens his mouth to read a poem and it cuts to another scene. When we cut back, it€™s about another two hours into the movie. Dylan may have worked longer on it than on any other single creative venture, but what he saw as creating reads more like salvaging. There is no story to speak of, but Dylan plays someone called Renaldo, his (soon to be ex-)wife Sara plays Clara, Joan Baez plays the Woman in White, and Ronnie Hawkins plays Bob Dylan. Although of course, everyone is playing themselves, and everyone isn€™t. Because of the documentary nature, reality keeps breaking through, and Dylan does even less €˜acting€™ than he did in Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. The individual scenes are of limited interest because they never feel like they have any context: the context is the tour, and the making of the movie. Without that knowledge, it would be a very hard film to take. As it is, it€™s flawed to say the least, and one is less forgiving of a flawed movie that takes four hours. But at least one of those hours is brilliant performance footage from the tour, with Dylan in his gypsy-troubadour gear and white face paint doing great versions of €œTangled Up in Blue,€ €œRomance in Durango€ and €œIsis,€ featuring the lithe, beautiful Scarlet Rivera on violin (she€™s one of the most magnetic presences in the film, so of course she€™s barely in it). Other highlights include Joan Baez doing €œDiamonds and Rust,€ a song she wrote about Dylan, and Ronee Blakley singing €œNeed A New Sun Rising.€ Though you wouldn€™t know it from this movie, Blakley can actually act; she gave one of the greatest performances in €™70s cinema in Robert Altman€™s Nashville, which I was reminded of a few times during Renaldo and Clara as it is also a multi-layered, ensemble piece held together by musical scenes, but it was in the hands of a master filmmaker and this simply wasn€™t. The movie was recut €“ to about 100 minutes €“ for a brief release in Europe then withdrawn from distribution by Dylan. It has survived since in scratchy bootlegs; I only got a chance to see it recently in the cinema by chance when the Glasgow Film Theatre screened the only surviving print of the movie left in the world. By the time it was released, Renaldo and Clara, which might have been a hit in the €™60s, seemed pretentious and anachronistic; punk music was on the rise. But despite the fact that Dylan does very little in front of the camera when he isn€™t performing, it wasn€™t the last time he acted in movies, and it certainly wasn€™t the last concert film he would appear in. He popped up in several over the years, most significantly perhaps in Martin Scorsese€™s The Last Waltz, a record of The Band€™s farewell concert, accompanied by several of the most famous musicians of the day. It is one of the finest of all concert movies, brilliantly photographed by a team of superb cinematographers and full of great music. Acting-wise, Dylan gave another much derided performance in Hearts of Fire in 1987, co-starring Rupert Everett and directed by Richard €œReturn of the Jedi€ Marquand. It was a disaster, hardly received a release (two weeks limited release in the UK; straight-to-video in the US) and is still unavailable on DVD; Marquand died just after filming was complete, and some people blame the production. Completist though I am, I couldn€™t bring myself to fork out for an old VHS copy of a movie that almost no one liked, so I can offer little other insight. In 1990 he made a very small, somewhat amusing cameo in Dennis Hopper€™s shambolic movie Catchfire, which was re-edited by the studios and disowned by Hopper (there€™s a theme here). Dylan plays an artist, busy at work with a chainsaw. According to IMDb, he appeared in a movie in 1999 called Paradise Cove, starring Ben Gazzara and Karen Black, although I can€™t tell you any more than that because I cannot find a single review of it, anywhere. It appears never to have been released. In 2001 he did win an Oscar, for Best Original Song. It was awarded for €œThings Have Changed,€ which plays over the credits of Curtis Hanson€™s great movie Wonder Boys. Hanson approached Dylan to get permission for songs for the movie and they ended up working together; Hanson also shot the music video for the song. It€™s one of the best Dylan songs of the last 20 years and perfectly suits that wonderful, underrated film. Being a Dylan fan is never boring, because Dylan, who has in the last decade released a Christmas album and taken up being a DJ, is not predictable. In 2003 he returned to €˜acting€™ once more, starring in Larry Charles€™s Masked and Anonymous. The film was financed by the BBC and shot in just 20 days, with a supporting cast that includes John Goodman, Jeff Bridges, Val Kilmer, Christian Slater, Jessica Lange, Penelope Cruz and Mickey Rourke. Dylan plays an imprisoned singer released for a benefit gig in a dystopian near-future. The key to the film may be the scene where Jessica Lange complains that Dylan€™s character, Jack Fate, doesn€™t do anything anymore. €˜He doesn€™t have to,€™ says Goodman. €˜He€™s a legend.€™ Dylan seems to have taken this to heart in preparing for the role, in which he has whittled the complexities of his Pat Garrett performance down to simply drawing in his cheeks, pouting slightly, and shifting his weight from foot to foot (in other words, he doesn€™t smile in this one). The movie makes little attempt to remove him from his own legend, and everyone in the movie talks like Dylan (while Dylan never utters more than one sentence per shot, nor wastes more than one facial expression per scene). In one scene he beats up Jeff Bridges, and it seems to be the power of his legend that knocks Bridges down; if it were between their fists Bridges would send Dylan, who is almost worryingly skinny in the film, through a wall. It is also an excuse to get Dylan to perform, and he gives half-decent performances of €œDiamond Joe€ and €œDixie€ (an odd choice), while the Dylan songs on the soundtrack are primarily covers. They are without question less interesting than the performances in Renaldo and Clara, but I€™d rather watch Masked and Anonymous again, and not just because of the difference in length. As with that movie Dylan gets a writing credit here (under a pseudonym), and he€™s clearly playing a version of himself, but the way the movie evokes some of his songs is interesting (it€™s like a live-action version of €œDesolation Row€) and the political cynicism is effective; the B-movie creation of a police-state actually stays with you. One of the only critics to defend the movie was Jonathan Rosenbaum, who praised €˜its unblinking look at American greed, corruption, and self-absorption€“only slightly disguised as dystopian fantasy€“and I suspect that€™s what really bothered .€™ It€™s a pretentious movie all right, and it basically doesn€™t work, but watching it not work is more interesting than watching many more conventional movies working. Dylan has not turned his hand to acting since, but who knows what the guy has up his sleeve. Two movies have been made since Masked and Anonymous which probably tell you a lot more about Dylan, and offer more entertaining viewing experiences, than any of the movies he€™s actually acted in. The first is Martin Scorsese€™s 2005 documentary No Direction Home, the definitive Dylan documentary covering his youth and early days in New York, up until his motorcycle accident in 1966. It is masterfully edited together and aside from being the only documentary of its type to feature Dylan himself being interviewed, effectively narrating it, it also gathers interviews with Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Dave Van Ronk and Suzie Rotolo (the girlfriend on the cover of the Freewheelin€™ album). The interviews had been gathered over several years by Jeff Rosen, Dylan€™s manager, and include one with Allen Ginsberg, who died in 1997. Scorsese was brought in quite late to make something of it (he never actually interviewed Dylan himself, claiming he was too nervous). As well as telling Dylan€™s story, it evokes the time and place beautifully. Finally, in 2005 Todd Haynes got permission from Dylan to make a semi-bio-pic about Dylan, scored with his own music. It was significant that he got permission; Haynes had a nightmare on the production and release of Velvet Goldmine after David Bowie refused permission to use his music. This time he had Dylan€™s blessing, and he constructed a fragmented story wherein six different actors would play representations of Dylan (or representations of representations of Dylan). The actors selected were Ben Whishaw, Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Richard Gere, Marcus Carl Franklin and Heath Ledger. As was noted at the time, that list includes an 11-year-old African-American kid and an Australian woman, but that kind of openmindedness at the casting stage was precisely the point. Not everyone responded well to the movie, and I am unsure how someone with little or no real knowledge of Dylan would take it. I find myself enjoying it more each time I watch it; even the Richard Gere section €“ he plays a cowboy called Billy €“ works as both an allusion to the Peckinpah movie and a representation of Dylan in hiding from himself, or his fans, in the early €™70s. The closest performance to Dylan, physically and in voice, is Cate Blanchett€™s; while not obvious casting, she brings the right note of hipster androgyny to the part. Marcus Carl Franklin plays a young runaway claiming to be Woody Guthrie, a representation of Dylan as myth-maker. Christian Bale shows us a Dylan in transition, growing tired of the labels and eventually being reborn as a Christian. Heath Ledger plays an actor who once played a famous folksinger, and is struggling with his love life and with keeping his breakup private. Ben Whishaw holds it together, addressing the camera and giving mysterious soundbites to imagined questions. To what extent these are really versions of Dylan, or versions of what he put in his songs, or versions of the public perception of Dylan, remains ambiguous, possibly to Todd Haynes as much as the audience. It is a series of meditations on Dylan, taking several aspects of that elusive personality and running with them. By showing us six (or seven, if you count Bale as two) fictionalised versions of him that are all valid, it forces us to see how two-dimensional most bio-pics are. And in the end, Dylan is still a mystery, as he should be; when someone gives us songs like he has, it seems downright greedy to ask for more. The clue was in the title: I€™m Not There, taken from an obscure Dylan bootleg, which astutely sums up Dylan€™s public persona. The title kept springing to mind when I was watching Renaldo and Clara as well. If Dylan tried to create a persona at the beginning of his career, it quickly got away from him and grew legs of its own, and these movies offer an unusual, even neglected look at how that persona has manifested itself over the decades, and perhaps how he tried to escape it. Whether we can expect more acting from Dylan, I really can€™t say; having been a huge fan of his since childhood I€™ve stopped being surprised by him now. After a while you learn to expect the unexpected. At 70, Bob Dylan is still busy being born.
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I've been a film geek since childhood, and am yet to find a cure. Not an auteurist, but my favourite directors include Robert Altman, Ernst Lubitsch, Welles, Hitch and Kurosawa. I also love Powell & Pressburger movies, anything with Fred Astaire, Cary Grant or Katherine Hepburn, the space-ballet of 2001, Ealing comedies, subversive genre cinema and that bit in The Producers with the fountain.