Here is a question: was there a greater popular musician in the twentieth century than the inimitable Bob Dylan? Here is one answer: no there was not. Somewhere in the corner of a crowded bar a debate is raging as to who the greatest musician of all time is; one thing is certain, Bob Dylan’s name will not be far from the conversation. Without question, Dylan is one of the most productive and creative artists in music history, producing 36 studio albums across six decades, beside a collection of live albums, various compilations and a series of bootleg recordings. Today marks Dylan’s 74th birthday – Happy Birthday, Bob, from all at ORWAV! – making it a good opportunity to consider this peerless artist’s relationship with film.
An outcast troubadour, Dylan is both potently political and fiercely romantic, regarded as much as a poet and philosopher as a musician. Despite the various industrial shifts over the course of the last half century, Dylan remains a true cultural institution, endlessly reinventing himself throughout the various musical epochs he has inhabited. His influence and legacy are unimpeachable; he is truly without equal among living artists. With such landmark albums as The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, Bringing it All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde, The Basement Tapes, Blood on the Tracks, Oh Mercy!, and Time Out of Mind to his name, there really is no denying the impact that his shining, perennial genius has had upon the world of music.
“They’re selling postcards of the hanging
They’re painting the passports brown
The beauty parlor is filled with sailors
The circus is in town
Here comes the blind commissioner
They’ve got him in a trance
One hand is tied to the tight-rope walker
The other is in his pants
And the riot squad they’re restless
They need somewhere to go
As Lady and I look out tonight
From Desolation Row”
(“Desolation Row”, Highway 61 Revisited, 1965)
What is almost as startling as his enduring success as a musician, however, is the seeming strength of Dylan’s relationship with film over the course of his career. Contained within the sweeping lyrics of his expansive, cinematic epics such as “Desolation Row”, “Hurricane”, “Brownsville Girl”, or “The Man in the Long Black Coat”, is a stirring sense of widescreen wonder in which the imagery speaks to filmic visions of America constructed from iconographies of the American landscapes that were fostered in classical Hollywood filmmaking, and, more specifically, the Western. There is an almost mythical quality to Dylan’s songwriting; his meticulously crafted visualisations of America’s geography intermingle with lithe literariness, careful social criticism, and political urgency. “Desolation Row”, an unquestionable masterpiece in Dylan’s oeuvre, is an apocalyptic hallucination of the end of the world; it is the dust-bowl retelling of the book of revelations in which the road to ruin is lined with literary icons upon an American landscape that recalls the films of John Ford or Howard Hawks.
Or take “Brownsville Girl”, which tells the story of a half-remembered romance with a former lover that he now associates with an American film about a fallen gunslinger:
“Well there was this movie I seen one time
About a man riding across the desert and starred Gregory Peck”
(“Brownsville Girl”, Knocked Out Loaded, 1986)
As Dylan ruminates on the affair he is sidetracked by the recollection of an old Gregory Peck film he once saw (the film is a 1950 western called The Gunfighter). There is something persuasively romantic, and strikingly wistful, about the way in which the song threads together the memory of an old romance with the Gregory Peck film. Both the film itself, and Dylan’s retelling of the affair, are steeped in a strong, fated sense of time and tradition; for the purpose of the song, the old black and white movie comes to represent Dylan’s idealisation of a romantic past that is timeworn but pure.
Of course, not only do some of Dylan’s songs have a strong lyrical relationship with film, they also feature often within a vast collection of film and television soundtracks (IMDb currently lists 531 entries from 1964 to present). It would be impossible to cover even the smallest fraction of that daunting number, but there is a chance here to discuss some of the more brilliant uses of Dylan’s music on film. Often cited is the admittedly exceptional use of Dylan’s “The Times they are A-Changing” for the opening sequence of Zack Snyder’s somewhat divisive Watchmen adaptation; the song – one of Dylan’s finest – quietly, and perfectly, captures the nihilistic activism inherent to Moore’s masterful source text. “Hurricane” – Dylan’s sprawling tale of boxer Rubin Carter’s wrongful imprisonment – brilliantly accompanies Matthew McConaughey’s Wooderson as he struts into the Emporium bar in Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused, a nostalgia-fuelled odyssey of disaffected youth; the song, itself a masterpiece of storytelling, laces the scene with a dripping, timeless sense of cool. The Coen brothers utilize Dylan’s “The Man in Me” to similar effect as the Dude (Jeff Bridges) trips over the L.A. skyline in The Big Lebowski; the song, lesser known than “The Times they are A-Changing” or “Hurricane”, captures the pervading sense of chilled euphoria and self-identity that lies at the heart of the Dude’s infectiously appealing philosophy.
Despite winning an Oscar in 2001 for the song “Things Have Changed”, written for Curtis Hanson’s Wonder Boys – yes, Bob Dylan is an Oscar winner! – perhaps Dylan’s most famous direct contribution to film is the score he provided for Sam Peckinpah’s elegiac Western masterpiece Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid in 1973. Not only did Dylan star in the film opposite fellow musician Kris Kristofferson, he also provided one of the great soundtracks of the 1970s. It is a testament to Dylan’s sheer genius that the accompanying album is generally considered a minor work of his – especially in light of the unmatched brilliance of his 1960s output – however, the album is great enough to stand alone as the wonderful record it is. Beside the beauty of instrumental numbers such as the “Main Title Theme (Billy)” and “Bunkhouse Theme” lies “Billy 4”, an unfairly neglected Dylan track, and the haunting masterpiece that is “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”. Easily as famous as “Blowin’ in the Wind” or “Like a Rolling Stone”, “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” sublimely captures the foreboding spectre of death that lingers over the film’s proceedings as it accompanies (read: creates) one of the most iconic and moving scenes in the entire genre.
Dylan’s forays into acting have been infrequent and are often met with scorn; even despite the brilliance of his score, he is arguably the weak link in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid as far as performances are concerned. Other acting roles of his such as Hearts of Fire and Masked and Anonymous have been written off as shameless vanity projects and there really is nothing much to acknowledge in either of them. Dylan has, however, been the subject of at least two exceptional documentaries: D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back documents Dylan’s infamous tour of England in 1965. Martin Scorsese’s utterly brilliant No Direction Home, meanwhile, traces the path from Dylan’s early New York days in 1961 to his famous motorcycle accident in 1966. It is fitting that Dylan is so enigmatic as both a man and a musician that Todd Haynes 2007 biopic I’m Not There had to employ no less than six actors to portray various aspects of his life and career. Among them Heath Ledger, Ben Wishaw, and Marcus Carl Franklin provide stellar work, but it is Cate Blanchett who shines as the embodiment of Dylan’s electric persona. She perfectly captures his mannerisms, providing a truly memorable performance for a unique and wonderful take on the man’s truly unique and wonderful life.
No doubt, Dylan is an icon. Perhaps, even, Dylan is the greatest living icon of music. And while his credentials as a legend of music are now beyond contest, his presence in film has often been overlooked. As the peerless Bob Dylan celebrates his 74th birthday, let us celebrate the enduring mark his music has left upon film.