Highlights from Bob Dylan's strange (and often awful) film career


Minnesota’s own Bob Dylan has been a towering figure in music for over 50 years, so much so that he has his own adjective (“Dylanesque,” used more often than not to politely describe lyrics that don’t make sense). He has worn many hats over the years and now, somewhat incongruously, he has won the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature (maybe next year, Murakami).

Dylan is the second Minnesotan to win, after Sinclair Lewis (1930), who was also the first American to be awarded the honor. The prize is typically given to people who’ve written books (Dylan has written two: Tarantula (1971) and Chronicles: Volume One (2004)). But it’s not the first incongruity in Dylan’s career. He has also pursued a wildly uneven career in cinema, variously playing the role of documentary subject, actor, screenwriter, editor, and director.

Let’s take a look at six of the most notable entries in Dylan’s filmography.

Title: Don’t Look Back (1967).

What it is: The year is 1965, and an increasingly bitter and burned out Dylan has brought filmmaker D. A. Pennebaker along to document his tour of England. Whether snarling at journalists or winning a shouting match with an extremely drunk Alan Price (The Animals), Dylan is captured here with a raw intimacy that few subsequent rock docs could ever hope to equal (and maybe didn’t want to).

With other artists drifting in and out of the film -- Joan Baez, a visibly uncomfortable Donovan, a never uncomfortable Allen Ginsberg -- Don’t Look Back features iconic scenes that, even if you haven’t seen them here, you’ve probably seen parodies: Dylan displaying cue cards featuring the key words to “Subterranean Homesick Blues”; Dylan, upon being dubbed an anarchist by an interviewer, demanding, “Give the anarchist a cigarette.” It’s not always pleasant viewing, but it’s always compelling, and it paved the way for virtually every rockumentary to come.

Context: If we can speak of a “Golden Age of Bob Dylan,” it was the early- to mid-'60s, where he released one classic album after another: The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, Another Side of Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited, and, the year after Don’t Look Back was filmed, the epochal Blonde on Blonde. This was Dylan at his absolute best, and what better time than this to capture Dylan in concert?

Where it’s streaming: Amazon.

Title: Eat the Document (1972'ish)

What it is: What a lot of people don’t realize is that Don’t Look Back was supposed to have a sequel, and that Dylan brought Pennebaker with him when he toured England again in 1966. Perhaps understandably, Dylan feared that the film, commissioned by ABC as a TV special, would be too much of a retread of Don’t Look Back. So -- less understandably -- upon seeing Pennebaker’s cut of the film, he decided to re-edit the footage himself. Pennebaker tried to explain to him that editing was something you need training for, and that you really couldn’t just figure it out on your own, but Dylan insisted.

The result, seen by only a handful of people, was a mess: ABC deemed it incomprehensible and never aired it. It’s only been publicly screened a few times, and it’s never been released on home video. But there are tantalizing bits on YouTube, including a wonderful sequence of Dylan and John Lennon in the back of a limo, trading Johnny Cash impressions, and then Dylan starts to get sick and Lennon makes fun of him (“Stiff upper lip, Bobby”). It’s the sort of thing that every Dylan aficionado should see, if only just once.

Context: By the time Eat the Document entered its catastrophic post-production phase, Dylan was at a different place in his life. He had been injured in a motorcycle accident (under circumstances that Dylan has kept murky to this day) and retreated from the spotlight to live in reclusion in Woodstock, New York (imagine his vexation when every hippie in the country descended on Woodstock in ’69). It was within this context that he released his 1970 album Self-Portrait, a bizarre fuck-up (“What is this shit?” opens the famous Rolling Stone review) in which he actively tried to alienate the fans who’d made him into the voice of their generation, a role he’d never wanted. Self-sabotage is definitely a possibility in trying to explain why Eat the Document was butchered the way it was.

Where it’s streaming: Nowhere (legally, that is).

Title: The Last Waltz (1978).

What it is: One of the richest concert docs ever made, this Martin Scorsese film documents the 1976 farewell concert of Dylan’s former backing band, The Band (a name they settled on after incarnations as the Hawks and the Rockets). Featuring numerous special guests -- Dylan, their frequent collaborator, but also Joan Baez, Neil Young, Joni Mitchel, Eric Clapton, Muddy Waters, Neil Diamond, Van Morrison, Ringo Starr, and a host of others -- it’s a delightful grab-bag of musical talent to suit almost every taste.

Now, Dylan doesn’t hog the spotlight here -- in many ways he’s reprising the supporting role he played in George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh (1972) -- but his vast influence haunts the affair like a benevolent ghost, as so much of the music, from the Band’s distinctly Faulknerian take on Americana to Neil Young’s folksy falsetto story songs, would be inconceivable without the music pathways opened by Dylan in the '60s.

Context: By the mid-'70s, Dylan was enjoying a huge revival in his career, with the consecutive releases of Blood on the Tracks and previously unreleased recordings made with the Band in 1967, released in ’75 as The Basement Tapes. He would never again receive this much adulation for new material.

Where it’s streaming: Amazon.

Title: Renaldo and Clara (1978).

What it is: That same year saw the release of Dylan’s baffling directorial debut, the behemoth (nearly four hours) hybrid WTF known as Renaldo and Clara. Blending serviceable concert footage from Dylan and his Rolling Thunder Revue with shitty fictional interludes written by Dylan, ostensibly in collaboration with Sam Shepard (who’s probably wondering at this point why he hasn’t won the Nobel Prize), Renaldo and Clara was screened a handful of times, almost universally reviled by critics, and last seen legally on European television in the early '80s, at which point Dylan withdrew the film from circulation.

You can find scattered clips of it here and there (including on Columbia’s legal “bootleg” series, where so much of Dylan’s driftwood tends to wash ashore), but, like Eat the Document, it’s never been released on home video. However, if you’re a completist, you can always track down somebody who taped it off West German television in 1981.

Context: The context here may seem much the same as for The Last Waltz, but the concert at the heart of that film was recorded in 1976. By ’78, Dylan had squandered much of the good will he’d (re)accumulated with Blood on the Tracks, he was about to embrace Born-Again Christianity (which is not what you’re supposed to do when you’re a countercultural icon), and the quality of his new musical output was to remain dismal through the '80s (bearing in mind that almost everybody’s musical output was dismal during the '80s). In a sense, Renaldo and Clara was an apt harbinger of things to come.

Where it’s streaming: West German television, 1981.

Title: Masked and Anonymous (2003).

What it is: With the precedent set by Eat the Document and Renaldo and Clara, you’d kind of think that nobody would have let Dylan make another movie. But here we are, 2003, and out comes Masked and Anonymous, written by Dylan and Larry Charles (who directs, and would go on to work with Sacha Baron Cohen in some of the decade’s defining exercises in bad taste), starring a remarkable assemblage of reputable actors, all signed on at union wages for the opportunity to work with Dylan: Penelope Cruz, Jeff Bridges, Bruce Dern, Jessica Lange (apparently Sam Shepard didn’t warn her away), John Goodman, and of course Dylan himself.

Oh yes, and the plot: in a post-apocalyptic (oh God) world, Jack Fate (Dylan) is a folk rocker just released from prison who has to play a charity concert to save America, or something. Looking suitably grizzled, Dylan uses the opportunity to address a series of vague -- but very serious -- issues, and runs through a number of his songs spanning the decades, before “heading to another joint,” kind of like a lonely cowboy or the Incredible Hulk. The music’s great (Jack Fate’s backing band is played by Dylan’s real-life backing band at the time), but to be blunt, Dylan can’t act. Some people say he can’t sing, mind you, but there’s room for debate on that score. But he really can’t act.

Context: Ok, so by this point, Dylan had re-re-accumulated the good will of the critical establishment, and his albums of the '90s and early '00s were well received. While they lack the freshness and excitement of his earlier work, and as the quality of his voice was beginning to decline precipitously, these recordings -- Time Out of Mind, Love and Theft, Modern Times -- cemented Dylan’s late-career image as the hardscrabble elder statesman of American rock, touring constantly (on what has come to be known as “The Never Ending Tour”) and keeping up a steady output of new music.

Where it’s streaming: Amazon.

Title: No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (2005).

What it is: We conclude on a much cheerier note, with Dylan the musician front and center where he belongs. Made for PBS in 2005, this Scorsese doc provides a warm, in-depth look at Dylan’s early days: his roots in Minnesota, his experiences in the Greenwich Village folk scene, his rise to fame, his classic albums, and his retreat from the limelight following the 1966 motorcycle accident that almost killed him. Telling the story, we have Dylan himself and almost everybody who knew him during the period in question and who was still alive in 2005.

He has an able chronicler in Scorsese, who uses the broader canvas made available by PBS (about three and a half hours) to present a full picture of his subject without ever falling into the meandering tedium that occasionally plagues PBS’s house documentarian Ken Burns. Scorsese is also much more focused here than he was in his next PBS music documentary, the disappointing George Harrison: Living in the Material World (2011). No Direction Home is a suitable place to leave Dylan: doing what he does best, and with the promise of more to come.

Context: By the time he sat down for Scorsese’s documentary, Dylan’s legacy was secure. Not even a baffling Victoria’s Secret commercial, or his later cover albums (Christmas in the Heart and two albums of old standards) can detract from it. Dylan doesn’t have to “do” anything anymore, but he still does. And with the Nobel seal impressed on his reputation, who’s going to tell him he can’t?

Where it’s streaming: Amazon.