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Bob Dylan and The Movies: His Songs and His Acting

Joan Baez: in Documentaries & Films with Dylan - US Info Agency, Press & Publicity
Poet, singer, songwriter, musician, painter, actor: there is no limit to what Bob Dylan brings to the world through his creativity and originality.

Bob Dylan is no stranger to screen, whether concert recordings or documentaries. He has helped make and participated in movies, using his music and his many-times reinvented persona.

Documentaries About the Man

According to Internet Movie Database (IMDb), D A Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back (1967), famous for opening with Subterranean Homesick Blues word cards, was a portrait of the artist as a young man, following Dylan round a three week British tour two years earlier. Among others, Joan Baez and British troubadour Donovan are featured.

IMDb also rate Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (2005) as a portrait of an artist as a young man. Using interviews cut with archival material, it traced musical development, absorptions of others’ styles and how he periodically reinvents himself.

There’s an unauthorised Dylan Documentaries box set directed by Joel Gilbert, comprising Rolling Thunder and The Gospel Years CD soundtracks; films of Bob Dylan 1975-1981 Rolling Thunder and The Gospel Years (2006), Bob Dylan World Tours 1966-1974 Through the Camera of Barry Feinstein (2005), and Bob Dylan 1966 World Tour, The Home Movies Through the Camera of Mickey Jones (2003).

There are at least two documentaries on his Jesus years. One, Inside Bob Dylan’s Jesus Years: Busy Being Born… Again!, logs when Jesus was prominent in his songs. As Gerardo Marti, sociologist and author wrote on Praxis Habitus on race, religion and culture in Jan 2009, “the film is a biography playing on the shock Dylan’s conversion and apocalyptic preaching caused amongst his fans”. There is Bob Dylan: 1978-1989 – Both Ends of the Rainbow, also covering his overtly Christian time.

Festival follows 1960s’ Newport Festivals with Dylan performance footage, including the first electric with Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Eat the Document is one hour of England’s 1966 electric tour. 1971’s Concert for Bangladesh was George Harrison’s fundraiser in Madison Square Gardens, featuring Dylan on stage. The Last Waltz was 1976’s farewell concert by The Band, again featuring Dylan in action.

Perhaps the most intriguing docudrama film, is I’m Not There (2007), narrated by Kris Kristofferson, which interprets his life from Woody Guthrie disciple to crusty old man, using six actors in the Brechtian distancing-of-character method. Dylan himself didn’t act in it.

Dylan the Child aged 11 was played by black Marcus Carl Franklin, while film.com wondered why Dylan’s own son Jakob didn’t play his father as boy. Ben Wishaw created Dylan the Young Poet; Heath Ledger Dylan the Young Actor. Christian Bale portrayed Dylan the Gospel Singer; Richard Gere showed Dylan the Kid, “an aged Billy the Kid who also happens to represent Dylan”. Cate Blanchett played Dylan the Wisecracker when he embraced electric guitar and drums, while Russell Crowe got Dylan the Bruiser.

Dylan the Actor

An early appearance was in Madhouse on Castle Street, a BBC TV play broadcast in Britain, January 1963, set in a boarding house where a resident locked himself in his room until the world changed. Dylan played a folk singer. Unfortunately no full recording survives, only partial audios of Dylan’s four songs. As for acting: he had neither experience nor training and found it hard to learn lines or concentrate.

However, he improved, as Top Ten Reviews rate him 14,974th of 196,269 actors. Bob Dylan FAQ by Adam K Powers and John Howells lists acting/directing achievements as at Feb 2009. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid was Sam Peckinpah’s 1973 take on the western outlaw tale. Dylan took a small, amusing role, “Alias”. He wrote the soundtrack, including Knocking on Heaven’s Door which became a huge commercial success.

Five years later, he wrote most of, directed and starred in the surrealist 4-hour movie later cut to two (some critics claim Cubist & French cinema influences) Renaldo and Clara. Panned on release, it contained interesting features: live footage from Rolling Thunder Revue tour (1975); his then-wife, Sara, one-time lover Joan Baez and future companion, Ruth Tyrangiel; footage of boxer Rubin Carter, subject of Hurricane, and the last known clip of folk-rock singer-songwriter Phil Ochs before his suicide.

In 1985, he appeared in Hearts of Fire, playing an aging rock star, and briefly in Dennis Hopper’s Backtrack, also known as Catchfire (1989). Masked and Anonymous (2003) was criticised, though his soundtrack was praised. Dylan played himself doing a benefit concert in some unspecified country experiencing a revolution.

Dylan Songs In Movies

Dylan is prolific. So many songs have been used in movies, it’s hard to be definitive. Searching For a Gem focusses on songs he recorded himself ignoring covers, and include Coming Home (1978) and More America Graffiti (1979) which have Just Like a Woman and the latter also has Like a Rolling Stone, which is aired in New York Stories (1989) and In the Name of the Father (1994). 1979’s The Wanderers uses The Times They Are a-Changin’ which is also in Five Corners (1987).

When the Ship Comes In is in The War at Home (1979); Highway 61 Revisited is used in Where the Buffalo Roam (1980); Rude Awakening (1989) has Rainy Day Women, as does Sneakers (1992), Forest Gump (1994) and Honest (2000) which also has 4th Time Around and One of Us Must Know.

Over a hundred movies feature one or more Dylan-sung songs within, on opening or over closing credits, without counting covers. Blowin’ in the Wind is in Der Baader Meinhof Komplex (2008), and also in a commercial in Britain by the Co-operative, to promote food sales. There’s no limit to this man’s influence on the world’s cultural life.

First published on Suite 101, 20 July 2010.

Photo: Joan Baez: in Documentaries & Films with Dylan – US Info Agency, Press & Publicity

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2 Responses to "Bob Dylan and The Movies: His Songs and His Acting"

  1. […] Bob Dylan and the Movies: His Songs and His Acting […]

  2. Mesake says:

    It’s more of an historical denmuoct than a rousing introduction to the greatest songwriter of all time. It certainly can’t compare to the Beatles first album. It’s the perfect intro album for the artist who changed it all. Melds all the strains of American music. Gospel, blues, touch of country (Acuff), the major celtic connection (Maid of Fife, a scottish air made popular by the Clancy Bros and Tommy Makem all over the Irish cityscapes).Dylan was a genius, not just for his art, but for recognizing his commercial potential every step of the way. He wanted to be Elvis and he became so much more.