Last month, I had a few ideas for blogs relating to Bob Dylan’s 70th birthday. I was only able to write one of them in time, so here is the first of two others I had planned.
Anyway, whether you’re a Dylan fan or just curious, here’s a list of the movies you must see and those you should be glad I saw for you.
Dont Look Back. D. A. Pennebaker’s documentary of Dylan’s 1965 tour of England. One of the classics of the direct cinema movement and a seminal rockumentary, Dont Look Back captures Dylan on the cusp of transitioning from folkie to rocker.
Festival! Dylan is one of many performers in this documentary on the Newport Folk Festival. Here you can see him from his earliest days as a folk singer straight up through his infamous electric set, and there are performances of his songs by the likes of Joan Baez, Johnny Cash, and Peter, Paul and Mary as well.
Eat the Document. Pennebaker shot this film of Dylan’s embattled 1966 world tour which combines documentary footage with some staged scenes. Then Dylan got ahold of it and reedited it himself. It was shown once on a New York television station, and has since existed as a bootleg film.
Concert for Bangladesh. Dylan was the surprise guest at George Harrison’s star-studded benefit concerts for flood and famine relief in Bangladesh. And the best part is, the proceeds of the film—and the DVD release—of this great concert still go to UNICEF.
Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Dylan made his proper acting debut in this Peckinpaw western, and, it’s, uh, well, a good thing he didn’t quit his day job. But, on the other hand, he contributed several songs to the soundtrack, including “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.”
Renaldo and Clara. The film of the 1975 Rolling Thunder Review tour is part concert film, part art film exploring the nature of identity, and part documentary on wrongfully imprisoned boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter—all directed by Dylan himself. As a part of Dylan’s overall artistic career, it’s interesting. As a movie, it’s… got great concert footage. Panned horribly on it’s initial release, the full four-hour version of the film has only aired a few times on European TV since then, but luckily for us, someone set their VCR to tape it. A few scenes have been officially released as a bonus DVD with The Bootleg Series Vol. 5: Bob Dylan 1975, The Rolling Thunder Review.
The Last Waltz. Around the same time, Dylan played with The Band for their farewell concert which was directed by Martin Scorsese. (Yes, the concert and the film.) An amazing film with great performances all around, but the chemistry between Dylan and The Band is its highlight.
Hearts of Fire. Dylan is one of the many classic rock stars who seemed lost in the 80s. Among his WTF? moments in that decade is taking a role in this truly awful take on A Star Is Born. The only redeeming quality is that everyone is so bad—even Rupert Everette—Dylan's acting doesn’t actually seem as unbelievably awful as it usually does.
Wonder Boys. Dylan doesn’t actually appear in this film about a writing professor failing to finish his second novel, but a lot of his songs are on the sound track. Written specifically for the film, “Things Have Changed” won him an Oscar.
Masked and Anonymous. Dylan once again tried to make a film himself—thankfully, this time, directed by someone else. With so many stars in the cast—John Goodman, Jessica Lang, Luke Wilson, etc.—it was either going to be a colossal failure or a big hit. And it was neither, really. Once again receiving poor reviews because it’s “arty,” Masked is nevertheless more comprehensible than Renaldo and Clara, especially if you’ve been paying attention to certain themes in Dylan’s recent work.
No Direction Home. Martin Scorsese was commissioned to take a whole bunch of footage Dylan had—including exclusive interviews with himself—and make a documentary for PBS’s American Masters Series. However, it is anything but boring. At three and a half hours long, it is a fascinating and insightful look at Dylan’s career up to his 1966 motorcycle accident.
Factory Girl. Dylan makes no appearance in this film about Edie Sedgwick and her relationships with Andy Warhol and an unnamed folk singer who totally isn’t supposed to be Bob Dylan even though he looks like him, sounds like him, and acts like him. What reason could he possibly have had threaten to sue the production? (Maybe it being so horribly inaccurate that Lou Reed refused to license any of his songs has something to do with it?) It’s bad, but not quite as bad as the critical reaction made it seem. I read the original script. It could have been worse.
Bob Dylan 1965 Revisited. Pennebaker opened up his vault to restore Dont Look Back, found hours of great unused material, and edited it into a new documentary. Nowhere near as influential as the original film, but it still provides an interesting glimpse into Dylan's transitional state, as well as providing more musical performances.
The Other Side of the Mirror. All of Murray Lerner’s footage of Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival are in this DVD comprised of outtakes from Festival! Since the footage is just pieced together in chronological order, you get the feeling it would have made a better bonus disc accompanying the original film like Pennebaker’s 1965 Revisited, but it is pretty cool to get a near-complete version of Dylan’s 1965 electric set.
I’m Not There. Todd Haynes's biopic—if you could call it that—of Dylan has him played by six different actors of different ages, races, and genders. A much more successful exploration of identity than Renaldo and Clara, I’m Not There has a great soundtrack full of covers and Dylan originals.