In “Things Have Changed,” Bob Dylan, the so-called poet laureate of a generation, sings, “I’m in the wrong town, I should be in Hollywood.” Well, maybe. And judging from his cinematic resumé, maybe not. In honor of Dylan’s appearance Thursday, July 28, at the Adam’s Center, here’s a sampling of his work on the big screen.
Masked and Anonymous (2003)
Dylan stars in this convoluted tale about a washed-up folk legend playing an ambiguous benefit concert for the victims of an unexplained war. This David Lynchian film (actually done by “Curb Your Enthusiasm” director Larry Charles) loosely follows the organization of the concert—or lack thereof—with liberal use of bizarre digressions into the main character’s rambling personal history. It’s an absolute mess, but includes roles for a barrage of slightly crazy Hollywood stars, including John Goodman, Jessica Lang, Jeff Bridges, Penélope Cruz, Christian Slater, Chris Penn, Val Kilmer, Luke Wilson, Giovanni Ribisi, Angela Bassett, Ed Harris, Cheech Marin, Mickey Rourke and Bruce Dern. All of these established actors took pay cuts to spend 20 days with Dylan making this amateurish film.
Dylan and Charles co-wrote the script under pseudonyms (distancing themselves, maybe?), and Dylan’s poetic craftsmanship provides a few gems (“I feel like someone who’s lived 10,000 years, has 17 senses and is standing ankle-high in the Atlantic” and “Keeping people from being free is big business”), but maybe the best part of Masked and Anonymous is in the DVD extras. Here, you get to watch Penn say he’s read the script three times and still doesn’t get it, Kilmer express glassy-eyed appreciation of the writing (“But do I get killed? I hope I don’t get killed”), Goodman admit he can’t say what the movie is about, and Charles explain the moviemaking experience was about the journey and that “the result is irrelevant.” This is basically an admission by the director that the film stinks, but that it was fun to make. I suppose that’s a fair assessment—much like the recording sessions of Dylan’s “Rainy Day Woman #12 & 35.” But this train wreck calls to mind another of Dylan’s songs, “Most of the Time,” when he sings, “I don’t build up illusion till it makes me sick, I ain’t afraid of confusion no matter how thick.”
We Are the World—The Story Behind the Song (2005)
In “Something’s Burning, Baby,” Dylan sings, “We’ve reached the edge of the road, baby, where the pasture begins/Where charity is supposed to cover up a multitude of sins.” Maybe these lyrics are why the 20th anniversary DVD of this monumental charitable effort includes an awkward outtake where Lionel Ritchie, among others, gives Dylan a voice lesson mid-rehearsal.
Hearts of Fire (1987)
This rare piece of ’80s nostalgia is impossible to find for local rental and no copies are currently available from eBay or Amazon, but it deserves mention as Dylan’s first mainstream leading role. A venerable music legend named Billy Parker (played by the venerable legend himself) ends up mentoring rising pop sensation Molly McGuire (played by then-rising pop sensation Fiona), until she is wooed by a hot young stud named James Colt (played by hot young stud Rupert Everett). If the character names alone don’t give it away, the script was written by King of Schlock Joe Eszterhas, the same man who delivered Flashdance and Showgirls.
It’s not clear why Dylan signed on for this trash, but in his 1985 song “Up to Me,” he did sing, “Someone had to reach for the risin’ star, I guess it was up to me.” In this case, maybe he should have let someone else—for some reason Rob Lowe comes to mind—carry the burden. It’s worth noting that Dylan at least had the good taste to avoid Heart’s opening in London; it lasted all of seven days in theaters.
Don’t Look Back (1967)
This classic documentary by D.A. Pennebaker follows Dylan during his 1965 romp through Great Britain. Pennebaker has said he thinks Dylan is acting throughout the film, but it still provides a fascinating glimpse of the singer in his prime—concert halls dead silent during his performances, playfully trashing fellow folkster Donovan, killing time on the road with Joan Baez, and the young star screaming “Take that girl off our car, please!” as he pulls away from screaming fans. Maybe the latter inspired his lyrics in 1975’s “Idiot Wind”: “People see me all the time and they just can’t remember how to act/Their minds are filled with big ideas, images and distorted facts.”
Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973)
Dylan’s soundtrack (including “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”) is probably more valuable to Sam Peckinpah’s film than his acting. That being said, among all of his big-screen characters, Dylan’s portrayal of Alias—his first appearance in a major film—is his best acting work. Dylan speaks little, but his scrawny, squinting, knife-tossing outlaw is a quirky addition to Billy’s gang.
Renaldo and Clara (1978)
Dylan’s four-hour directorial debut was panned by critics, but seen by some as an underappreciated piece of raw, emotionally exposing filmmaking. Dylan and then-wife Sara play the title characters in a love triangle that also includes real-life Dylan squeeze Joan Baez as the Woman in White. It’s no accident when Dylan (as Renaldo) plays “Isis” during the film and sings, “How she told me that one day we would meet up again, and things would be different the next time we wed.”
The film is too layered to make any sense (for instance, Dylan appears in a mask, then in whiteface, and then rockabilly legend Ronnie Hawkins appears claiming to be Dylan), but the concert footage from the 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue tour is pretty cool. It’s a fitting commentary—the acting and story too dense to enjoy, but the music a welcome relief.