Something has happened here, and we all know what it is: Bob Dylan has added a Nobel Prize for Literature to the many accolades in his storied career. The singer specifically received the award — the first time it’s gone to a musician — for his contributions to the art of songwriting, but serious Dylanologists will be tickled by the thought that his two produced film screenplays, Renaldo and Clara and Masked and Anonymous, might also fall under the umbrella of “literature.” While Dylan’s infrequent forays into filmmaking largely have been relegated to a footnote compared with his more celebrated albums and books, in light of the Nobel news, it’s worth remembering that his movies also reverberate with his unique voice. Here’s our primer on his jingly-jangly filmography.
Don’t Look Back (1967)
Cinema verite pioneer D.A. Pennebaker essentially created the rock documentary with this fly-on-the-wall account of Dylan’s 1965 British tour, right before he went electric. Similarities to the lightly fictionalized Beatles romp A Hard Day’s Night have been noted over the years, but Don’t Look Back plays in a less rambunctious key. Pennebaker deliberately cuts away from concert footage, focusing instead on the tour’s day-to-day grind, from interviews with flummoxed journalists to endless hours spent sequestered in hotel rooms and cars. Unlike today, when performers are always careful to remain “on brand,” Dylan’s lack of interest in playing to the camera — or even acknowledging its existence — is still surprising. (Available to rent or buy on Amazon and iTunes)
Eat the Document (1972)
Returning to England in 1966 backed by the band that would later become The Band, an electric guitar-toting Dylan encountered hostile audiences and a charged landscape. Pennebaker was back behind the camera, but the ABC-commissioned documentary was shelved following the singer’s infamous motorcycle accident that summer. Dylan eventually edited the footage into an hour-long piece that the network declined to air. Since then, Eat the Document has been sequestered in the Dylan vaults, although it does peek out every now and then. I attended a special one-night-only screening when I was in college, and remember the film as a chaotically impressionistic portrait of an artist as opposed to Pennebaker’s more streamlined assembly. But the concert footage is remarkable, with Dylan and the Hawks jamming out even as the crowd jeers.
Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973)
At the tail end of a country period that produced one of Dylan’s finest albums, Nashville Skyline, Sam Peckinpah tapped Dylan to act in and write the music for his re-telling of the life and death of the titular outlaw. The film itself was the victim of studio interference, with the director’s intended cut only emerging after his death. Fortunately, Dylan’s accompanying soundtrack escaped unscathed, and shot to gold record status on the strength of a song that’s become one of his most-covered tunes: “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” That song, rather than his distracting presence on screen, is his most lasting contribution to the movie’s legacy. (Available to rent or buy on Amazon and iTunes)
Renaldo and Clara (1978)
Dylan’s magnum opus boasts a four-hour runtime, only pieces of which are available now. (Cardholders at N.Y.’s now-closed Kim’s Video were able to rent the whole megillah when that oasis for cult movies was still in operation. These days, that tape is probably locked up in the Sicilian town where the store’s archives were sent after its 2008 closing.) But maybe bite-sized viewings are the best way to process his free-associative collage of documentary footage, staged scenes, and scenes from the Rolling Thunder Revue, his 1975 tour/concept art piece. Dylan and his then-wife Sara play the title characters, and the movie teases viewers with glimpses into their real relationship, as well as the singer’s history with fellow folk icon, Joan Baez.
Hearts of Fire (1987)
It’s somehow appropriate that the closest Dylan ever came to a conventional Hollywood star vehicle also ranks as the weirdest movie he ever made. Hearts of Fire finds the singer — then in the midst of his ‘80s rock phase, complete with leather vest and permed hair — being directed by Return of the Jedi’s Richard Marquand and speaking dialogue by Showgirls scribe Joe Eszterhas. He also decks a young Rupert Everett, which is pretty much worth the price tag for the long out-of-print VHS tape.
Masked and Anonymous (2003)
In case you doubted the enduring power of Dylan’s mystique, just look at the cast list for this oddball near-future satire, which he co-wrote with director Larry Charles under the pseudonym, Sergei Petrov. Everyone from Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange to Ed Harris and Cheech Marin joined this rollicking train to Weirdtown, captained by Dylan as recently sprung singer/ex-con Jack Fate. (Scene-stealer prize has to go to Val Kilmer, who seems to be under the impression that he’s still acting in The Doors.) Whatever Charles and Dylan thought they had on the page doesn’t really translate to the big screen, although pointed digs at the media’s eagerness to bury fallen idols and the public’s own nostalgic tendencies for a vanished past do land. The funniest thing about Masked and Anonymous is that it just might qualify as Bob Dylan’s Idiocracy — thematically, if not comedically. (Available to rent or buy on Amazon and iTunes)
I’m Not There (2007)
Dylan had no personal involvement with Todd Haynes’s high-concept take on a traditional biopic, beyond granting the director permission to use his life and song catalogue for material. But given how carefully he protects the latter, that approval counts as a full-throated endorsement of I’m Not There’s kaleidoscopic approach, which mixes genres, styles, and performers to explore the man and his myth across different periods. Although Cate Blanchett’s Oscar-nominated turn as Don’t Look Back-era Dylan is the performance everyone remembers, young Marcus Carl Franklin is equally great at embodying the spirit of Woody Guthrie that fueled Dylan’s early career, while Heath Ledger makes a better Renaldo stand-in than Dylan for the Renaldo and Clara passage of the movie. (Available to rent or buy on Amazon and iTunes)