movie review

Dylan, films: a long affair to remember
Songs enhance movies, while movies inspire lyrics

By Michael Booth, Denver Post Entertainment Writer

As a movie actor, let's just say that Bob Dylan makes a terrific off-screen presence.

Handed a spoken-word part on the big screen, Dylan never seems to convince people he has any idea what he's doing, or exactly what he was supposed to be doing.

But when moviemakers choose his music instead of his line readings to make their point, Dylan brings it all back home. Dylan's enigmatic lyrics and twisted-heartland musical scores give an extra-sensory quality to the best movies, even when played over the closing credits. They wrap all that was just presented on screen in a visceral auditory package.

Would Denzel Washington's "Hurricane" stick quite so effectively in our heads without using Dylan's rocking protest anthem about all the wrongs done to boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter?

"Here comes the story of the Hurricane/The man the authorities came to blame ... How can the life of such a man/Be in the palm of some fool's hand?"

Through the decades, Dylan has been seen in the movies and heard in the movies, and has borrowed movie lines and images for his songs. Here's a recap of what not to miss on screen, as well as what is better heard than seen.

Dylan on screen

The best way to see Bob in the movies is in a documentary by somebody else. And that would be "The Last Waltz," in which he dominates only a few minutes, but during which his influence as a musician and cultural icon permeates the great Martin Scorsese movie. Scorsese captured the last performance of The Band, which started out as Dylan's backup group, and wove in some of the best live rock performances ever put on film.

Outside these terrific musical demonstrations, which include hard-to-find versions of the "Concert for Bangladesh," "Don't Look Back" and his "MTV Unplugged" special, Dylan's film reputation echoes the poor reviews for "Masked and Anonymous." The best fiction piece he was in was Sam Peckinpah's "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kidd" in 1973, but if you look for it, make sure to find the director's cut. The studio decimated it upon release before Peckinpah restored it. Dylan's classic "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" was written for the movie.

Other attempts at acting, during which only Dylan seems to get the joke, should be avoided in "Renaldo and Clara" from 1977 and "Hearts of Fire" in 1978.

Songs on screen

The rangy, mangy Minnesotan contributed dozens of songs to movie soundtracks grim and great before finally winning credit for all the work at the 2001 Academy Awards. His midlife crisis, mid-tempo rocker "Things have Changed" perfectly captured the bemused chaos of lead actor Michael Douglas in "Wonder Boys," a faithful and underrated adaptation of Michael Chabon's novel of the same name. Dylan won the Oscar for best movie song, and his Academy performance by remote from Australia provided another chapter in his ongoing mystery: Face up tight against the mounted camera, his deathly white pallor gave a ghostly spectre to the evening.

Fans on Dylan websites love to discuss other hits and near misses from his songwriting for the movies. "Lay Lady Lay" was apparently commissioned for "Midnight Cowboy," but Dylan pushed the deadline too far and they used another memorable song, Harry Nilsson's "Everybody's Talkin'."

Producers tap old Dylan songs all the time, including "Shelter from the Storm" for "Jerry Maguire," "All Along the Watchtower" for "American Beauty," "The Man in Me" for "The Big Lebowski," "Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum" for "Bandits," "Most of the Time" and "Shooting Star" for "High Fidelity." One Internet fan particularly liked the use of his cover of "You Belong to Me" for a partially conjugal prison visit by Juliette Lewis in "Natural Born Killers."

Lyrics from movies

Five decades of pop cultural influences liberally pepper Dylan's songbook, and he's never shied away from mixing modern imagery in with his regular cast of lovers and bad boys.

"Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)" is a bewildering mix of magnetic fields, painted wagons, horse leather and disconnected cables. It's no wonder that movie dialogue creeps into the troubadour's words.

Dylan megafan Jim Linwood compiled an exhaustive list of all the master's songs containing movie references, on his Web page, This website could make you crazy - read it for a few moments, and it will seem like Dylan writes every song on a TV tray at 2 a.m. while staring bleary-eyed at Turner Classic Movies. (This site becomes even more fascinating given recent speculation about Dylan using too many of a Japanese author's words for his 2001 album "Love and Theft.")

From "The Maltese Falcon" alone, Dylan appears to have used a half-dozen lines, including Bogart's "I don't mind a reasonable amount of trouble" for the song "Seeing the Real You at Last."

Other plausible movie sources for Dylan lyrics range from "A Streetcar Named Desire" all the way up to Clint Eastwood's "Bronco Billy."