“Yeah, I’ve been beaten up, but I’m not beaten. I’m not beaten and I’m not quittin’.”
Legendary filmmaker Martin Scorsese once said: “Movies touch our hearts and awaken vision, and change the way we see things,” so far so in keeping with Bob Dylan himself. The Scorsese quote goes on to add: “They take us to other places, they open doors and minds.” This was very much the same bohemian blast that Dylan provided when he burst onto the scene and altered the course of history.
It is, therefore, no surprise that like the rest of us, Dylan had his worldview formed by the unspooling messages on the silver screen. Unlike the rest of us, however, Dylan’s love was so profuse that he went on to direct a movie of his own, the long-forgotten Renaldo and Clara, but that’s a tale for a different day, as today, we focus on the film that inspired him and helped to stir up his artistic gestalt. After all, it’s worth remembering that before Dylan, music in some ways lagged behind cinema’s progressive march.
When Dylan was a young man of 14 years, music and cinema would come together and deliver a cultural wallop to the would-be troubadour that proved profound. In 1955, director Richard Brooks decided to imbue his next film with the rising aura of rock ‘n’ roll. Thus, for Blackboard Jungle, he sought the talents of Bill Haley and the Comets to colour his feature with their rockabilly ways.
Dylan and his high school friend Leroy Hoikkala were lucky enough to witness Blackboard Jungle in the cinema and Hoikkala recalls in Dylan A Biography: “Bob couldn’t believe it. We were walking home past the Alice School, and he kept saying, ‘This is really great! This is exactly what we’ve been trying to tell people about ourselves!’” Less than ten years later, Dylan would extol the same revealing virtues of a generation determined to go about things their own way.
Hoikkala opines that Dylan seemed to think “maybe they’ll believe us,” as though the penny had dropped that you could use a cultural voice for change after all. He adds: “Looking back that film really changed our lives because, for the first time, we felt like it was talking directly to us.” Dylan would soon achieve that same feat to such a profuse extent that he was dubbed the singular ‘Voice of a Generation’ (a token he despises).
The film itself is not much more than a proto-teen drama. Like many people, Dylan, an artist who changed the world in a fell swoop of individualistic brilliance faster than perhaps anyone who had gone before him, had his mind blown by a 1950s version of 90210. But what might seem derivative in retrospect was the ground zero for everything that followed back when it was released.
The film documents a young glossy-eyed teacher’s first year in a new multicultural school in some rough New York neighbourhood. He is determined to make a difference but faces a battle on two fronts as both the rebellious children and the school board are at ends with his radical ways. Naturally, he also has a troubled love interest and likes a drink owing to the trauma of war, ticking all the classic tropes we’ve come to know and love in just about everything that has followed.
Richard Brooks’ Oscar-nominated screenplay was based on a novel of the same name by Evan Hunter (who later became a successful crime writer under the pseudonym Ed McBain). Hunter was once a teacher and based the book on his own experiences. He once said: “I thought I was going to give these kids who wanted to be motor mechanics Shakespeare and they were going to appreciate it, and they weren’t buying it. I went home in tears night after night.”
The beautiful irony to his endeavours being that just as all the cheesy melodramas that have followed suggest, you only have to get through to one kid to make a difference. That kid, admittedly via a long way round, was Bob Dylan and he went on to deliver more poetry to the masses than Shakespeare himself. With ‘Rock around the Clock’ as its theme, bohemian suddenly seemed bourgeoise-defying and more akin to the rebellion that wayward kids were after.
Rock ‘n’ roll was the modern Shakespearean attitude that they sought and with a new brand of poetry, the world would change forever making poor old Hunter’s efforts worthwhile in the end. What is it they say about teaching again…? If you are planning for a year, sow rice; if you are planning for a decade plant trees; if you’re planning for a lifetime, educate people. In a final twist of fate, even Dylan told Rolling Stone he would have gone into teaching had he never made it in music. Thus, let us endeavour to ensure that the syllabus is modern enough to always inspire.