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As Bob Dylan approaches his 80th birthday May 24, his maverick spirit continues to fuel Hollywood’s imagination.
In the past year alone, his ’60s classics informed a number of prestige projects, including One Night in Miami, wherein Malcolm X drops a needle on “Blowin’ in the Wind” to teach Sam Cooke what he feels a protest song should sound like.
In Soul, Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” wafts from a galleon filled with hippie mystics, while his “I Shall Be Released” is heard in The Good Lord Bird. And his scorching “Masters of War” launches the third episode of Raoul Peck’s kaleidoscopic documentary series on racism and genocide, Exterminate All the Brutes.
“He’s one of the rare poets who really felt the pulse of society and of the world,” says Peck, who has used Dylan music in three of his works, including the Oscar-nominated 2016 James Baldwin documentary, I Am Not Your Negro.
“When I was younger,” adds Peck, “there were not that many pop or folk singers [by whom] I felt represented. With Dylan I never had that problem. And don’t forget, he was at every important juncture [involving] the Black community, whether it was about Hurricane Carter or Medgar Evers. He was more than a bridge; he captured the real feelings of those moments — the anger and the poetry of it — the existential part of it as well.”
Dylan was impressed early on by the magic of film. Growing up in Hibbing, Minnesota, he frequented the Lybba Theater, a family enterprise named for his grandmother, Lybba Edelstein. His heroes included James Dean and Marlon Brando. But he also held Harry Belafonte and Judy Garland in equal if not higher regard for their ability to combine acting with unmistakable singing chops. Later, in his Greenwich Village days, Dylan would be inspired by François Truffaut and Federico Fellini, who not only captured real life but appealed to his tendency to color outside the lines.
As two documentaries — Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home (2005) and The Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story (2019) — attest, Dylan can be a riveting screen presence. He could also be a thorny figure, as seen in 1967’s Don’t Look Back, D.A. Pennebaker’s vérité chronicle of his 1965 tour in England. The film laid bare Dylan’s contrarian nature, his refusal to be pigeonholed and his tendency to treat the press, much like Brando did, as a cat would a ball of yarn.
Roughly a year after that film was shot, Dylan would take over Pennebaker’s footage of his 1966 tour in the U.K. and Ireland as director. The result, Eat the Document, was refused by ABC, which commissioned it, and never received a proper release. It also proved that a Bob Dylan film is a distinctly different animal, existing outside the established rules of narrative. Dylan’s Renaldo and Clara (1978) — a shambolic mixture of concert footage, interviews and fictional vignettes from the Rolling Thunder Revue tours and inspired in part by Marcel Carné’s Children of Paradise (1945) — went even further in blurring the lines between reality and fantasy. At almost four hours, it’s an endurance test for all but his most ardent followers.
Nevertheless, director Todd Haynes has called Eat the Document “bizarre and utterly frenetic and twisted and fascinating.” The film helped inspire the director’s own unorthodox Dylan pic, I’m Not There (2007), in which the subject is played by six different actors, including Cate Blanchett. Haynes viewed the Dylan story as being about “self-invention at every level” and described his movie as “almost like a psychic debate between different selves.”
Like a certain Archibald Leach (aka Cary Grant), Dylan, who was born Robert Zimmerman, created a stage name for himself and molded his own persona, re-writing the script to his life as he saw fit. Like many of his tongue-twister compositions, the screenplay he co-wrote for Masked and Anonymous (2003), directed by Larry Charles and in which he stars as a version of himself, is open to interpretation. Jeff Bridges, who played a jaded journalist in the movie, said it “did seem like a Dylan song. There certainly was a throughline following the inventors of Jack Fate, Bob Dylan’s character, coming into contact with all these fascinating characters.”
Adds the actor: “The atmosphere on the set was very loosey-goosey. I think we shot the whole thing in a couple of weeks. And Larry Charles created a wonderful atmosphere of just enjoyment and play.” Reviews were not as kind. The New York Times referred to Dylan’s performance as “gnomic” and the film as “an unholy, incoherent mess. As a Bob Dylan artifact, though, it is endlessly, perhaps morbidly, fascinating.”
Despite Dylan’s mixed track record as an actor, screenwriter and director, A-list talent flocks to work on anything with his name attached. The admiration appears mutual. (It’s worth noting that Dylan was at the ready when he accepted his Oscar via satellite feed from Australia for the song “Things Have Changed” from 2000’s Wonder Boys, while he kept the Nobel committee waiting months to pick up his literature prize.)
And he’s been generous in licensing his music to filmmakers with similarly adventurous sensibilities. The catch is that directors and music supervisors are invariably kept in the dark about what their muse thinks of their efforts, apropos for this eternal man of mystery. Soul editor Kevin Nolting, whose idea it was use “Subterranean Homesick Blues” on the soundtrack, says feedback from the Dylan camp has yet to come. “I did not hear it if there was,” he says. “I’m really curious, though.”
This story first appeared in the May 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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