Top 5 Bob Dylan Movies
Icon. Chameleon. Prophet. Sellout. Recluse. These are just some of the labels that Bob Dylan has worked his entire life to avoid. Dylan has a particularly unique place in 20th Century history; a writer and artist held in universally high esteem while simultaneously being viewed as a vile betrayer of the core values that others have ascribed to him. Perhaps this is why Dylan remains a fascinating subject for filmmakers in the 21st Century. Over the years, Dylan’s attempts at filmmaking have often left his fans bewildered and disappointed but even the failed experiments can reveal insights into an artist who prides himself on being indefinable.
Top 5 Bob Dylan Movies
1. Dont Look Back (1967) by D.A. Pennebaker
Sometimes the classics just endure. Pennebaker’s gonzo-style documentary captures a petulant, argumentative Bob Dylan during his particularly trying 1966 European tour. 1966 is the year when Dylan incurred the wrath of folkies everywhere by having the audacity to try an express himself creatively through an electric guitar. The documentary has several classic moments that are treasures for today’s Dylan fans – including the cue-card dropping music video for ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’, Dylan’s obvious distain for British folk singer Donovan and Dylan’s amusement at being invited to a mansion-house by London’s most stereotypical wealthy dowager. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back has influenced a number of movies from Tim Robbins’ political satire Bob Roberts (1992) to the most watchable sequence in Todd Haynes’ incomprehensible tribute to Dylan, I’m Not There (2007).
2. No Direction Home (2005) by Martin Scorsese
Made by Apple Films for the PBS series American Masters, No Direction Home is easily the most comprehensive and thorough examination of the work and life of Bob Dylan, but would you expect anything less from master filmmaker Martin Scorsese? Some of Dylan’s greatest moments in the two-part, 3-hour-plus documentary are from seldom-seen colour footage taken by D.A. Pennebaker in 1966. Context is everything and Scorsese pursues every avenue as he traces the musical traditions and influences of Dylan’s music, from Woody Guthrie and Odetta to Liam Clancy and the Rovers. One of the great strengths of No Direction Home is Scorsese’s ability to cut through the decades of mythologizing that has built up around Dylan to reveal him, not as the voice of a generation, but as an ambitious and talented young man who quickly became disillusioned with his worldwide success.
3. The Other Side of the Mirror (2007) by Murray Lerner
Personally, I have always been a greater fan of the rocking and rolling electric Bob Dylan than the acoustic folkie Bob Dylan. Before I saw The Other Side of the Mirror and No Direction Home, I actually had a hard time appreciating why Dylan’s fans were so deeply crestfallen by this change in his sound. The Other Side of the Mirror is a collection of black and white footage taken at the Newport Folk Festival between 1963 and 1965, and when watched as a feature the stark contrast between quiet reflective folk songs and blaring amplified rock n’ rock becomes painfully clear. The difference between Dylan gently signing ‘With God on Our Side’ with Joan Baez in 1964 and the aggressive blues-lanced rock n’ roll of ‘Maggie’s Farm’ one year later is nothing short of staggering – And, as the story goes, it was shocking enough for Pete Seeger to suggest cutting the amplifier wires with an axe. And, judging from the hostile sound of the audience in the documentary, there were many at the festival that year that would have cheered for Seeger if he had indeed taken an axe to the speaker system. Unlike many other concert films, The Other Side of the Mirror has a heartbreaking ending which is something more than just an encore; it’s the end of an era. After wounding the audience with his new electric sound, Dylan is coaxed back on stage to calm down the festival-goers with some acoustic guitar. Dylan plays ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’ and, whether intentionally or not, it appears as though Dylan is telling his most ardent supporters in the folk movement to move on; “Strike another match, go start anew. And it’s all over now, Baby Blue.”
4. Renaldo and Clara (1978) by Bob Dylan
This one is only for the certifiably hardcore. Dylan’s Renaldo and Clara is widely considered to be a failed experiment. The nearly 4-hour feature was filmed during the Rolling Thunder Revue 1975-76 concert tour to promote Dylan’s album ‘Desire’, and for fans the tour quickly became the stuff of legends. Playwright and actor Sam Sheppard travelled with the tour to work on the screenplay for Renaldo and Clara but unfortunately for him, and audiences, Dylan’s approach to the film favored improvisation over scripted dialogue. The character of Clara is played by Sara Dylan and, in many scenes, the improvised dialogue between her and Dylan alludes to serious problems in their marriage that will eventually lead to their divorce. If there is a reason to watch Renaldo and Clara, it would be primarily for the outstanding Rolling Thunder Revue concert footage. Filled with a kind of manic energy, Dylan’s face is smeared with cracking white makeup, his eyes are wild as I have ever seen them and he continuously makes dramatic and unpredictable hand gestures during songs like ‘Isis’. Personally, I think if the Rolling Thunder footage had been presented and arranged as shorter documentary, minus the nonsensical story elements, it could have made for one of the most gripping concert movies yet made. Moving from opinion into pure speculation, I have occasionally wondered if directing this film and crafting the character of Renaldo were part of Dylan’s method toward inventing a new and wilder performance style for the Rolling Thunder Revue tour. Perhaps without having cast himself in this unscripted experimental movie, Dylan never would have been able to deliver the crazed live performances that made the Rolling Thunder Revue one of the most beloved and talked-about tours of his career.
5. Masked and Anonymous (2003) by Larry Charles
The feature film Masked and Anonymous is vague and mysterious, but not necessarily in a good way. I would recommend this film for fans that are curious about how a Dylan-written movie might work, but don’t want to sit through four hours of Renaldo and Clara. If I remember correctly, Dylan plays a legendary musician named Jack Fate who has recently been released from prison to perform a concert as the United States of North America spirals deeper and deeper into a civil war. John Goodman plays the gregarious concert promoter, Jeff Bridges plays a villainous rock journalist, Mickey Rourke plays a would-be despot waiting for his brother to die and, for no good reason whatsoever, Ed Harris appears towards the end wearing minstrel show blackface. As he was in Pat Garret and Billy the Kid, Dylan’s acting performance is subtle and subdued to the point of being nonexistent. Dylan looks so thin and frail as Jack Fate that when he punches Jeff Bridges’ face in the film’s final moments, the audience I was seated amongst burst out into laughter. Like Renaldo and Clara, the highlights of the film are Dylan’s musical performances; in particular Masked and Anonymous has an outstanding version of ‘Dixie’ which by itself nearly makes the film worthwhile.