One film journalist’s stream-of-consciousness cinematic journey through the pandemic, Part 36
By Laurence Lerman
On the occasion of Bob Dylan’s 80th birthday last week on May 24th—a milestone for one of the greatest songwriters and most popular figures of our time—a deep dive into Dylan’s film career is now in order (particularly with so much on tap to potentially stream).
Culling stills and footage from the hundreds, no thousands, of hours of his concert performances, interviews, video shorts and music clips that have been archived, the Dylan seen in the audio/video deluge reaffirms his powers as an exciting, intriguing, and genuinely inimitable performer. They also reveal that he’s at his finest onscreen when he’s simply being Dylan.
This could clearly be seen from the outset with Dylan’s fine performance—one of his best—in 1967’s Dont Look Back, the great documentarian D.A. Pennebaker’s landmark chronicle of the 24-year-old sensation’s 1965 tour of England.
(That’s right, there’s no apostrophe in “Dont”—Pennebacker decided to remove the punctuation mark in what he described as “My attempt to simplify the language.”)
Dont Look Back laid down the template for all of Dylan's nonfiction film work that was to follow—and the majority of his narrative cinema as well: Dylan wasn’t an actor; he was Dylan, whether he was following a script or taking direction (or opting not to do either). Or maybe he sees it all as one big punch line...
Dylan’s acting debut came in Sam Peckinpah’s 1973 revisionist western Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, starring James Coburn and Kris Kristofferson as the titular lawman and his former friend-turned-outlaw.
The first of Dylan’s several brief appearances in the film comes at the halfway point, when his character, a stranger named Alias, mutters something about his cypher-like name, before helping out Billy by burying a knife into a bounty hunter’s neck. Though he didn’t make much of an impression on me during his few on screen moments, there are those who grooved on Dylan’s walk-ons. (One such online fan declared Dylan’s portrayal as “cool as you can be without a guitar.”)
Peckinpah’s troubled production has garnered more attention and respect as the years have gone by—Coburn’s firing off his shotgun filled with rolls of dimes is awesome!—but the film is still best remembered for Dylan’s fine soundtrack. Consisting mainly of instrumental music that was inspired by the movie itself, it also includes “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” which went on to become an international Top 10 hit and one of Dylan’s most covered post-Sixties songs.
Dylan went multi-hyphenate as the director-co-writer-star of 1978’s Renaldo and Clara, an ill-fated multi-hyphenate concert film-documentary-drama. The concert sequences are taken from Dylan’s 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue tour, while the documentary material notably includes footage of Ruben Carter, the boxer wrongfully convicted of murder who is the subject of Dylan’s song “Hurricane.” The “drama” comes in the form of Dylan as the guitar-strumming Renaldo and his then-wife Sara as Clara, strolling about and having encounters with offbeat characters played by such recognizable personalities as Allen Ginsberg, Harry Dean Stanton and Sam Shepard (the film’s co-writer). How out-there is Renaldo and Clara? Well, musician Ronnie Hawkins and actress Ronee Blakely play the roles of Mr. and Mrs. Bob Dylan, for starters…
Critically and commercially drubbed upon release (both here and abroad), Dylan edited the film down from its initial four-hour running time (!) to a more digestible two hours. But it still didn’t click and he withdrew the film from distribution in 1980. Bits and pieces of it have popped up over the years in bootleg form and as bonuses on various releases, but the whole of Renaldo and Clara has yet to see an official release in any format since its premiere.
The big “But…” with Renaldo and Clara is that it contains the definitive live performance of “Tangled Up in Blue.” Lifted from the Rolling Thunder tour, it finds a hatted Dylan, his face smeared in clown-white makeup, offering an astounding acoustic version of one of his true emotional masterworks. And that surely counts for something.
While Dylan’s first two acting projects may not have been overly compelling, they weren’t easily forgotten, either. Sadly, that’s not the case with 1987’s Hearts of Fire, an entry so rote and unengaging that it’s lack of any kind of distinction makes it the anomaly of the quartet. An uninspired romantic drama about a reclusive, aging rock star (an uninspired Dylan) who takes a female protégé (singer-actress Fiona Flanagan) on the road only to see her interests shift toward a younger rising rocker (Rupert Everett), Hearts doesn’t offer any insights into love, lust and ambition in the rock world. Nor does it cut it as a vehicle for Dylan, who contributed two original songs to the film’s equally forgotten soundtrack.
Hearts was unenthusiastically released for a week or two in the U.S. and U.K. to awful reviews before being pulled and relegated to a straight-to-video rollout. It was the last film directed by Return of the Jedi helmer Richard Marquand, who would die of a stroke later that same year, earning it the nom de meurtre of “The Film That Killed Richard Marquand.”
Dylan’s most recent acting gig is 2003’s Masked and Anonymous, which he co-wrote under the name Sergei Petrov with Seinfeld creative partner Larry Charles, who also directed. Shaggy and anarchic, the film finds Dylan as iconic rock legend Jack Fate, who’s bailed out of prison to perform a one-man benefit concert for the future of North American society. Along the way, he encounters a slew of nutty characters played by such stars as Jessica Lange, John Goodman, Penelope Cruz, Bruce Dern, Jeff Bridges, Angela Bassett, Mickey Rourke, Val Kilmer and a zillion more.
Filled with ideas on totalitarianism, conspiracy theories, the futility of politics and a host of other chaotic ideas, along with a load of Dylan songs and covers, Masked and Anonymous is an indulgent and pretentious piece, but it’s still fascinatingly watchable. At one point near the end of the film, Dylan’s Jack fate admits that he has no solutions to the problems the film presents and that, “I stopped trying to figure everything out a long time ago.”
That said, it’s arguably more timely now than it was two decades ago.
What else? Well, Dylan has a cameo as an artist in Dennis Hopper’s 1990 romantic crime thriller Catchfire (which Hopper disowned, citing studio interference, before issuing a director’s cut years later under the title Backtrack.) He also quickly pops up as a chauffeur named Alfred in the 1999 neo-noir Paradise Cove with Ben Gazzara (a forgotten film I’ve only recently heard of!). But even more than his four most sizable onscreen roles, Dylan is, again, at his best when he’s Dylan.
There are, of course, a handful of curiosities.
Unless you don’t consider Dylan’s surprise appearance on a 2010 installment of the History Channel’s Pawn Stars autographing costar Chumlee’s original vinyl copy of his 1970 Self-Portrait album to be a bit bizarre. Or his unexpected spot on a 1999 episode of the sitcom Dharma and Greg, where he jams on a Memphis blues with T-Bone Burnette and Jenna Elfman on the skins. The name of the episode? “Play Lady Play.” A smiling Dylan even gets in a couple of jokes.
Then there’s Dylan’s 2004 Victoria’s Secret ad, his TV commercial debut (he’d previously licensed and performed his songs for ads, but this one marked the first time he ever appeared in on screen). In the spot, a somber-looking Dylan makes his way through a deserted Venetian palazzo as he seemingly stalks a scantily-clad lingerie model. I would have thought he’d be smiling for this one…
Then again, he probably was smiling—40 years earlier. As noted by historians when the commercial debuted, Dylan was once asked at a 1965 press conference in San Francisco, “If you were going to sell out to a commercial interest, which one would you do?”
“Ladies garments,” he responded with a smile.
Don’t think twice—Dylan always gets the last laugh.
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.