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Tuesday, March 5, 2024
The Observer

Bob Dylan films to watch while waiting for the new movie


I figured it was fitting to close the semester the same way I opened it: with Bob Dylan. Since the Timothée Chalamet biopic about the singer’s shift from folk to rock music— aptly titled “Going Electric” — is delayed indefinitely, here are some movies about Dylan to fill your endless days. Dylan’s elusive personality forces directors and documentarians to make choices not only about how to tell his story but also about what story to tell. There are countless unofficial and official documentaries and biopics that attempt to depict Dylan’s life, and the facts filmmakers decide to present as truths usually tell us more about them than they do Dylan, allowing him to maintain the cult of mystery surrounding his life while still collecting his paychecks.


“I’m Not There (2007)” — Todd Haynes 

Pretentious at times but endlessly fascinating, this movie takes an all-star cast and multiple Oscar nominations and makes a movie about Dylan’s fans. It requires some knowledge of Dylan’s life and career in order not to get lost while the story flips from one portrayal of Dylan to the next. The movie forces the viewer to realize that every Dylan fan picks a version of him to love and ignores the rest, often chalking it up to legend and lies. Expertly recreating historical scenes — as Cate Blanchett does in her representation of Dylan’s 1965 San Francisco press conference — while also forgoing reality for emotion, such as in the legendary Newport performance, this film captures what it’s like to be a fan of Dylan more than Dylan himself. It’s a masterclass in both performance and scripting; all the versions of Bob Dylan hurl through time toward the infamous motorcycle crash, leaving the viewer to decide which Dylan is theirs. 


“Don’t look back (1965)” — D.A. Pennebaker 

Premiering in 1965, this essential Dylan film came out at the height of his fame. This documentary follows the format of one of the hundreds of tour documentaries, leaving little time for reflection or introspection. It provides a remarkably human look at the artist as he navigates from one conversation to the next while reporters try to expose him as a fraud and his friends try to figure out his genius. B-roll footage of this film is still appearing on YouTube, framed in a historical sense. One clip of Dylan and John Lennon in a car following a night of entertainment puts Dylan’s rhythmic stuttering speech and Lennon’s humor on direct display. This documentary, I think, is less about telling a story than it is about displaying Dylan’s humanity. He can be seen at the top of his game, finally becoming the artist that the little boy with James Dean and Elvis posters on his walls wanted to be. But, as the film makes clear, his fans hated him for it. Throughout the film, I constantly want to offer him a hug. Humorously enough, "Don't Look Back" has a similar message as the new Justin Bieber song: nothing really matters when you’re lonely. 


“No Direction Home” — Martin Scorsese

This movie is a straightforward documentary. The over-three-hour runtime takes you through Dylan’s Odyssey. The story is told through talking heads like Joan Baez and Suze Rotolo, the only two people who probably got to see the complete Dylan (as well as, of course, Dylan himself). The creation of the film seems to function almost like a favor to all other filmmakers, offering a baseline for others to build off of with its strong, unbiased historical account that viewers can refer back to. It is a good place to start if you want to know more about Dylan and can make it through all 3 hours and 28 minutes. It took me a couple of sittings.


“Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)” — Joel and Ethan Coen 

OK, so this one probably does not belong on the list, since Dylan is only in it for a couple of seconds, but not only does Dylan and the impeding folk revival hang over the movie, but his music also appears on the soundtrack. The Coen Brothers were dedicated to portraying the historical and current folk scenes in an endless loop. By including the Milk Carton Kids, the Punch Brothers, Mumford and Sons and Joan Baez in a concert performance attached to the movie and on the soundtrack, the two directors blurred the lines between “then” and “now.” Dylan’s mastery of time is one of the most intriguing parts of his music and one of the major themes in the film. This movie may not be about Dylan directly, but it does have the heart of a young Dylan leaving behind Hibbing, Minnesota, for Greenwich Village in search of Guthrie and Kerouac, both of whom would end up disappointing him. It is a beautiful, sentimental account of the circular trajectory of folk music and a tribute to all of the musicians who, due to poor timing, lack of genius or moral stubbornness, have slipped through the cracks, leaving the question of “What if?” echoing in your head. 


“Rolling Thunder Revue (2019)” — Martin Scorsese

Scorsese’s second shot at Dylan’s story, this movie blurs fact and fiction, telling the story of one tour in 1975. It seamlessly stitches together true stories and historical footage with entirely fabricated accounts from professional actors. The movie may be commenting on the myths that surround Dylan, but it more rigorously tells the story of a last-ditch effort of a failing movement. By the mid-to-late ’70s, all the hope of the ’60s had disappeared, leaving behind artists desperately trying to rediscover something real on a bus. Seeing Dylan hop on a poor imitation of Ken Kesey’s bus and try to make himself into a new Cassidy at the wheel leaves a poor taste in my mouth. There is a pure momentbetween him and Allen Ginsburg at Kerouac’s grave. Some people see “Rolling Thunder Dylan” as the purest form of Dylan. With this in mind, the film is a great example of creative documentary filmmaking, one that only a director as established as Scorsese could pull off.