Bob Dylan On Screen
On May 12, 1963, Bob Dylan left the set of the Ed Sullivan Show, incensed the producers rejected his decision to “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues.” This non-circulation of his image through television provided valuable publicity and Dylan would boast of “the song they didn’t let me play on TV.” This incident stands at the beginning of an ambivalent and complicated relationship between Dylan’s persona, as expressed through his words and music, and its dissemination through screen media. This has been an uneven process: the documentary Dont Look Back (1967) is a classic of direct cinema and played an important role in broadcasting Dylan’s image, but its planned follow-up, Eat the Document (1972), went a different direction: Dylan insisted on editing it himself, it showed once on television and vanished into obscurity. The editing alone of his self-directed four-hour film Renaldo and Clara (1978) occupied more than a year of Dylan’s career, which should logically qualify it as a major work. Instead it’s little more than a footnote even for Dylan’s most devoted fans, watched by few and liked by fewer; Martin Scorsese’s repurposing of footage in Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story (2019) may be Renaldo and Clara’s lone legacy. Masked and Anonymous (2003) was scarcely better received. Though it found some admirers, Dylan himself would express disappointment with it in a 2012 interview with Mikal Gilmore, stating that, “When you want to make a film and you’re using outside money, there’s just too many people you have to listen to.” He even joked that they should have hired Cate Blanchett to play his part, Jack Fate.
Suffice it to say, the road to the Nobel Prize was not paved by Renaldo and Clara and Masked and Anonymous. Yet we need not think of Dylan’s career in such a linear, triumphalist narrative. His forays into cinema, scattered and frustrated though they may be, represent only some of the numerous places his image has been represented on screen, including live television performances (including the Live Aid debacle, with a weak performance and controversial statements), concert films, commercials, music videos and the like. The 21st century has also seen depictions of Dylan by other filmmakers, some semi-authorized (I’m Not There (2007)), others actively opposed under threat of litigation (Factory Girl (2007)). He has also been parodied on shows like The Simpsons (1989-) and King of the Hill (1997-2010), conventionally depicted as rambling incomprehensibly. Dylan has been the subject of countless documentaries, both authorized and unauthorized, his songs are perennial presences in movies and television shows (up to and including “Sign on the Window” on the Season 8 finale of Friends (1994-2004)). When Cory Monteith died of an overdose, the creators of Glee (2009-15) turned to Dylan’s “Make You Feel My Love” to capture the sense of loss for the show’s young fans.
This planned collection proposes to wrest Dylan’s screen incarnations from the margins of his career and explore the many ways that they have worked to develop, promote and in some ways hinder his status as a legendary artist. I seek around twelve new essays on Bob Dylan as a presence on the big and small screen, covering a range of critical and disciplinary approaches.
C.P. Lee’s book Like a Bullet of Light: The Films of Bob Dylan (2001) is a useful resource, if now dated.
Possible topics might include:
- Dylan as a multimedia artist (including not only musician and filmmaker but poet, memoirist, painter, sculptor, etc.), but “movie star” status forever eluding him
- Awards and prestige (Dylan and George Bernard Shaw are the only people with both Oscars and Nobel Prizes, but only Dylan has also won Worst Sense of Direction Award from the Stinkers Bad Movie Awards)
- New approaches to Renaldo and Clara (1978) or Masked and Anonymous (2003)
- Documentaries: Dont Look Back (1967), Eat the Document (1972), No Direction Home (2005), The Other Side of the Mirror (2007), 65 Revisited (2007), the slate of fan documentaries in recent decades, etc., plus the playful mixing of fact and fiction in Rolling Thunder Revue (2019)
- Concert films: Festival (1967), Concert for Bangladesh (1972), Hard Rain (1976), The Last Waltz (1978), Live Aid (1985), MTV Unplugged (1994),etc.
- TV appearances: from The Madhouse on Castle Street in 1963 to Quest for CBC in 1964 to The Johnny Cash Show in 1969 to Late Night with David Letterman in 2015, plus performances at award shows (like the infamous version of “Masters of War” during the Grammies in 1991)
- Dylan’s performances for American presidents (Clinton and Obama) and for Pope John Paul II
- Dylan as an actor for others: Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973), Hearts of Fire (1987), Backtrack (1990), etc., plus the fact that he was apparently offered the lead in Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
- Dylan’s soundtrack work: Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, Wonder Boys (2000), Lucky You (2007), My Own Love Song (2010),etc.
- The use of Dylan songs in movies and television
- Dylan’s cameos, such as on Dharma and Greg in 1999 and Pawn Stars in 2010
- Dylan and commercials – both the use of his music and his personal appearances in ads for Victoria’s Secret, the 2014 Chrysler Superbowl ad, the 2016 IBM ad with Watson
- Dylan’s music videos, from “Jokerman” to “The Night We Called It a Day,” plus the “interactive video” for “Like a Rolling Stone”
- Depictions of Dylan by others: I’m Not There (2007), Factory Girl (2006), Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), Urban Myths (2017), etc.
- “The cinematic” in Dylan’s music: “Brownsville Girl,” the many film citations on Empire Burlesque, the evidence of his fondness for Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player (1960) and Carné’s Children of Paradise (1945), etc.
- Anti-fandom: Dylan’s screen projects as a lightning rod for negativity about his career
Please send proposals of 250-300 words to firstname.lastname@example.org by June 30, 2020.
Murray Leeder holds a Ph.D. from Carleton University and is a Research Affiliate at the University of Manitoba. He has published on Bob Dylan in Popular Music and Society andthe Journal of Popular Film and Television.