Bob Dylan’s ever-presence in the music industry can sometimes be as comforting as the sky being blue or the grass being green. Such is the prevalence of the freewheelin’ troubadour’s words and the density with which he shared them across the airwaves that he has become the universe’s air conditioning unit, endlessly humming moments of warming white noise or gently cooling our fried brains. Though his presence may not be as routinely felt in the 21st century as it was in the bristling 1960s, Dylan is still the first poet that most people know.
In fact, Dylan’s been the people’s poet for nearly sixty years, capturing the public’s hearts and minds with his fragrant language and refusal to be confined into one genre or another. Dylan, too has refused to be subjected to the categorisation of one art form. Famed for his words, it makes perfect sense that he soon became the first rock star to be awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, but there’s one area which Dylan has comparatively rarely ventured into — film.
The singer-songwriter could have easily been swallowed up by the behemoth of cinema when his contemporaries began flirting in earnest with the silver screen. John Lennon, Mick Jagger, Ringo Starr, David Bowie and just about anyone else who was offered jumped in front of the camera during their career, something Dylan only ever agreed to do once during his heyday for Billy the Kid, finding comfort in cinema during the latter moments of his career. That’s not to say ‘Dylan: the poet’ doesn’t show up on occasion.
Such is the universal poignancy of Dylan’s words and the relatable context of his songs that the singer often appears in films as the perfect accompaniment to a particular scene. The real wonder in Dylan’s inclusion in the below scenes is the variety of different tones he can be applied to. Not reserved for moments of reflection, Dylan’s songs can punctuate tension, deliver impending implosions or facilitate fight scenes with just as much ease.
Below, we’ve picked out our favourite moments that Bob Dylan made films better.
10 best Bob Dylan music moments in films:
St. Vincent – ‘Shelter from the Storm’
Okay, so this one is a little bit of a different entry. Unlike the rest of the additions to this list, this version of ‘Shelter from the Storm’ isn’t sung by Bob Dylan. Instead, it is left to the archetypal joker of Hollywood, Bill Murray, to deliver. But, far removed from the hilarity of his performances off stage, Murray provides the kind of potent realism that he has used to his credit in the latter parts of his career.
Stealing a moment to have a cheeky cigarette, Murray is singing the classic track out loud while wearing headphones. It provides us with a moment where neither the audience nor Murray’s character is in their own head. Instead, he is with Dylan, singing their song and enjoying their cigarette. It’s beautiful.
High Fidelity – ‘Most of the Time’
There’s something about Nick Hornby’s novel that feels so poignantly British that when John Cusack et al. were slated to be making it into an Americanised film, the collective conscious of Blightly gasped. However, we needn’t have been worried, the essence of the original novel was kept intact, and only a few song choice changes made the final cut. One of those particularly pertinent moments comes when the realisation hits Cusack’s Rob Gordon.
Having realised that he is the major contributing factor to his relationships’ downfall, something quite painstakingly achieved by Gordon, he sits amid a downpour waiting for a bus that is seemingly never going to come. As if being washed of his sins by the very universe that seemed destined to scupper his love life infinitely, Bob Dylan’s ‘Most of the Time’ begins to gently play and add credence to the cause.
The Big Lebowski – ‘The Man in Me’
Certainly one of the most obscure songs on our list, the track resided on the rarely revisited New Morning record, ‘The Man In Me’ finds a perfect home in the bosom of the Coen Brothers’ cult classic, The Big Lebowski. Undoubtedly, a match made in heaven, the use of Dylan’s track to provide the backing for the movies’ opening credits was a fitting choice.
Dylan’s delivery is as gruff as ever, while the visuals the Coens provide is nothing short of pure poetry. Putting a songwriter as pure and authentic as Bob Dylan into the scenario of nacho cheese spillages and neon-light love may feel perverse, but Dylan only adds grandeur to the proceedings and showcases that, underneath the style, this is a film about Americana, through and through.
Easy Rider – ‘It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding’
Few artists and films fit together as easily as Bob Dylan and Easy Rider. The film has become one of the landmark moments of cinema and is a blueprint for how not to get a film made. However, when it finally was released, the film was punctured by the contemporary musicians’ brilliance that surrounded production. The 1969 film is now widely considered a classic.
It’s one of the few entries in our list that sees someone else take on the song. This time it is Roger McGuinn who performs the Bringing It All Back Home track after the film’s scriptwriter, Peter Fonda, failed to stump up the cash to use the original. McGuinn’s performance is wonderful, but the song’s lyrics really make this a vital contribution to the film.
I Walk the Line – ‘It Ain’t Me Babe’
Perhaps one of the greatest Bob Dylan cover of all time, Johnny Cash and June Carter’s cover of the classic song ‘It Ain’t Me Babe’ ranks highly as a truly remarkable cover. Cash was never afraid to pull out a cover or two, and his affection for Dylan guaranteed that he would always pick up a son from the acclaimed songwriter in his career. However, nobody could have assumed it would define his romantic relationship with June Carter so neatly.
The song’s protagonist is so clearly untrustworthy yet loving and devoted that he provides the perfect silhouette of Cash. So neatly tied was the bow around this song that the makers of I Walk the Line not only included the track in the film but it made one of the signifying plot points. Around this song, the whole film resonates, undoubtedly becoming most audience members’ favourite moments.
Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid – ‘Knockin’ On Heavens Door’
If there’s one film that kicked off Dylan’s new love for cinema it was Pat Garett & Billy The Kid, the 1973 film that not only saw Dylan create a wonderful soundtrack of original compositions but also star in the film too. He performs in the film alongside Kris Kristofferson, who takes on the role of Billy but all of that pales in comparison to the moment ‘Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door’ lands with aplomb.
Gospel harmonies do a great job of bookending the song but, in truth, the track transcended any kind of critique long ago. In Billy The Kid, it operates not only as a death note du jour but also as a potent prescription for self-discovery, something those out west would have found themselves doing moseying down every trail they could.
Vanilla Sky – ‘4th Time Around’
One of Dylan’s more contentious songs, he once claimed that John Lennon had borrowed the song to write ‘Norwegian Wood’, ‘4th Time Around’ works as the perfect backdrop to the endlessly infuriating Vanilla Sky. The 2001 film has a habit of sending audiences to sleep, but the use of this Bob Dylan track does provide a bright moment.
Not only does the song play out in a pivotal scene, but it also uses the subversive tendencies of the plot to place David and Sofia as a like-for-like remix of Dylan’s famous artwork for The Freehweelin’ Bob Dylan. While it’s a clever moment in the film, the song is largely the reason we’ll ever re-watch it.
The Royal Tenenbaums – ‘Wigwam’
One of the few auteurs on our list that can claim to be as in love with music as he is cinema is Wes Anderson. The director has always ensured that music provides a solid foundation for the visual construction he begins with every film and The Royal Tenenbaums — arguably his best film — is no different.
The film uses countless artists to make it one of Anderson’s best soundtracks, including The Rolling Stones and The Kinks, but the really poignant moment is saved for Dylan. It comes when Royal manages to tear the kids away from their safety-,ad father and finally show them how to have a little fun. It’s the connection of generations that many have hoped to enjoy.
Dazed & Confused – ‘Hurricane’
Few films inspire such cult fandom as Dazed & Confused. Richard Linklater uses plenty of tracks throughout the coming-of-age film to accent his scenes, relying on rock stalwarts like Alice Cooper, Black Sabbath and Deep Purple to provide the bones to his film. But perhaps the best moment is reserved for Bob Dylan and his seminal song ‘Hurricane’.
The track is played while Matthew McConaughey’s character Wooderson walks into the bar to survey his domain. It has gone down in history as one of the most iconic scenes from the entire film and it is punctuated perfectly by Dylan’s robust anthem for the downtrodden.
Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas – ‘Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again’
One thing must be noted before we try to continuously type this extraordinarily long song title, Hunter S. Thompson, the writer behind the novel Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, was a huge Bob Dylan fan. The Gonzo journalist held Dylan in the same esteem as he did novelists and always considered the singer-songwriter one of America’s favourite sons. As such, it was only fitting that the film adaptation of the book should include a homage to Dylan; it just so happened to be a left-field choice.
Given the circumstances, maybe that was to be expected. ‘Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again’ plays out as Raoul Duke and Dr Gonzo drive across the desert and head for their drug-addled heaven. Originally name-dropped in the original novel Thompson, director Terry Gilliam saw the open goal of including the track and let one rip.