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Bob Dylan's 10 greatest film performances

Nobel Prize winning American legend Bob Dylan is considered by many to be one of the greatest singer/songwriters of all time. His musical legacy is known around the world but Dylan has also lent his artistic sensibilities to the cinematic medium. Having worked as both a filmmaker as well as actor in films like Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, the legend has shown his versatility as a creative force.

While talking about his own directorial vision in Renaldo and Clara, Dylan said: “I know this film is too long. It may be four hours too long — I don’t care. To me, it’s not long enough. I’m not concerned how long something is. I want to see a set shot. I feel a set shot. I don’t feel all this motion and boom-boom. We can fast cut when we want, but the power comes in the ability to have faith that it is a meaningful shot.”

He added, “You know who understood this? Andy Warhol. Warhol did a lot for American cinema. He was before his time. But Warhol and Hitchcock and Peckinpah and Tod Browning . . . they were important to me. I figured Godard had the accessibility to make what he made, he broke new ground. I never saw any film like Breathless, but once you saw it, you said: ‘Yeah, man, why didn’t I do that, I could have done that.’ Okay, he did it, but he couldn’t have done it in America.”

On his 80th birthday, we take a look at Bob Dylan’s 10 best film performances of all time as a tribute to the enduring legacy of the legend and his contribution to the world of cinema.

Bob Dylan’s 10 best film performances:

10. Hearts of Fire (Richard Marquand – 1987)

Starring Dylan and Fiona Flanagan, this 1987 musical drama was a project which attempted to capitalise on the legend’s success as a musician. The film ended up being a commercial failure and Dylan ended up denouncing Hearts of Fire himself.

“It was like a hailstorm in your jacket pocket, man,” Dylan said while speaking about the production of Hearts of Fire in a 1988 interview with the rock magazine Burnt Suede. He compared the experience to “being brought up Jewish on a hog farm.” 

9. Masked and Anonymous (Larry Charles – 2003)

Written by Charles and Sergei Petrov (an alias used by Dylan), Masked and Anonymous stars the songwriter as a rock legend who is released from prison to save the crumbling society of North America. The star-studded ensemble cast features the likes of Penélope Cruz, Luke Wilson and Jeff Bridges among others.

Charles had this to say bout his collaboration with Dylan: “There’s nothing to describe it. It was the most life-changing experience of my life… it’s just meeting your guru, just holding a mirror to you and the world and saying look. That’s what it’s like being with him, just surprising you at all times, confounding you at all times, confusing you. But all with the end result of cracking open your head and just seeing more deeply and more clearly.”

8. Eat the Document (Bob Dylan – 1972)

This 1972 documentary chronicles Dylan’s 1966 tour of UK and Ireland, directed by Dylan himself under the guidance of D. A. Pennebaker. Although ABC dismissed the project as too complex for the general audience, Eat the Document has become an important part of Dylan’s creative legacy.

Editor Howard Alk explained: “Instead of trying to re-create the ‘real’ event with a vérité documentary approach, the editors looked for what each shot itself wanted to be. Conservations unheld, events untranspired. Some real music, some not. Murder, villainy, slavery and lust. We hope a real movie. Perhaps even a comedy.”

7. Renaldo and Clara (Bob Dylan – 1978)

The most famous cinematic project that Dylan directed, Renaldo and Clara is a four-hour hybrid film that combines the use of fiction, footage from concerts and documentary elements like interviews. Dylan cited Marcel Carné’s 1945 epic Children of Paradise as a source of inspiration for the film’s narrative structure and storytelling methods.

In a 1978 interview with Rolling Stone, Dylan explained, “It isn’t just about bus stations and cabarets and stage music and identity — those are elements of it. But it is mostly about identity — about everybody’s identity. More important, it’s about Renaldo’s identity, so we superimpose our own vision on Renaldo: it’s his vision and it’s his dream.

“You know what the film is about? It begins with music — you see a guy in a mask [Bob Dylan], you can see through the mask he’s wearing, and he’s singing When I Paint My Masterpiece. So right away you know there’s an involvement with music. Music is confronting you.”

6. The Concert for Bangladesh (Saul Swimmer – 1972)

Saul Swimmer’s 1972 documentary follows the benefit concerts that were arranged by Ravi Shankar and George Harrison for refugees that were displaced by the Bangladesh Liberation War. Among the illustrious contributors were Dylan, Leon Russell, Ringo Starr and Billy Preston.

Chris Jones wrote: “The crowd applauding Shankar tuning up; Billy Preston’s joyous dancing; Leon Russell’s raucous version of Jumping Jack Flash. Harrison is at once humble and masterful. And Bob, being Bob, veers between genius and parody, often in the space of one song.”

5. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (Sam Peckinpah – 1973)

Sam Peckinpah’s 1973 revisionist Western features the collision between an honest man and an outlaw with a bad reputation. Dylan makes a memorable appearance as Alias, killing a man with a knife. He also composed the film’s musical score, including the famous Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.

“Dylan was interested,” one of Dylan’s colleagues revealed, “interested in making movies and in Sam’s stuff. I called him up and he said, um, there’s a lot of heavies down there. I said, ‘Shit, you can get paid for learning’. So he went and saw a couple of Sam’s films and got really enthusiastic and decided to come down here, and he brought Sarah and the kids.”

Adding, “He had already written the title song but he was still a little reluctant about acting. I said, hell, the only reason I got in was to learn about acting. He said, but then they got you on film. I said, shit, they got you on record anyway. Come on, we’ll have a ball. I still feel guilty about saying that.”

4. The Other Side of the Mirror: Bob Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival (Murray Lerner – 2007)

This 2007 documentary is an essential entry because it shows how Dylan’s style changed immensely over the span of a few years. Lerner believed that Dylan had transcended the greatness of poets like T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound because his poetry managed to touch the hearts of the masses.

Lerner commented: “To me, the music was absolutely hypnotic and mesmerising with Dylan; I loved it. Now, people were thrown by the unexpectedness of it, but if you think about it, the lyrics reflected what the audience felt. He was talking about their feelings, the alienation of young people. It’s a very mysterious thing because I guess they didn’t respond to the lyrics.”

3. The Last Waltz (Martin Scorsese – 1978)

Martin Scorsese’s 1978 chronicle of The Band’s “farewell concert” is now regarded as one of the greatest works in the genre. Dylan agreed to appear at the concert but he did not want to be a part of Scorsese’s film. Thankfully, he finally relented and let the filmmaker record two of his songs: Forever Young and Baby Let Me Follow You Down.

“Somehow the 35mm brought out expressions of the band, the people on the stage and I decided not to shoot the people in the audience either,” the filmmaker explained. “We’ve seem so much concert footage and all you see is audience. But we do see the audience, but from their point of view.”

2. No Direction Home (Martin Scorsese – 2005)

No Direction Home is considered to be one of the definitive Bob Dylan documentaries by many fans. With a run-time of 208 minutes, Martin Scorsese’s project shows the pivotal moments in Dylan’s musical journey including the turmoil after his famous 1966 motorcycle accident which led to a brief retirement from touring.

With all the footage the ultimate challenge was the story, how to find it,” said Scorsese. “It was Bob Dylan — for many of us, our artist, our voice. And what can you say that hasn’t already been said in his music? We also tried to make a film about music in which you really hear music, Dylan’s music of course, but also more importantly I think the people who influenced him.”

1. Don’t Look Back (D.A. Pennebaker – 1967)

D.A. Pennebaker’s seminal 1967 documentary Don’t Look Back is undoubtedly the finest entry in this list. Although the filmmaker thought that he was being hired to shoot promotional footage, he ended up having complete creative control and managed to curate a brilliant cinematic experience.

The director said: “At the end of about the third day, I started listening to what Dylan was saying and I realised the film to make was not a music film; he’s going to make those himself, with albums and records. I realised this is a person who might be a poet, but doesn’t know it yet. He’s trying to figure it out. And that’s such an interesting thing to watch, so I was going to record every word he said, if I could.”