Bob Dylan loves movies, and movies have always informed his songwriting. Indeed, Dylan purloined Hollywood so savagely for his album Empire Burlesque, that John Ford, Gregory Peck, and Humphrey Bogart should have been listed in the production credits. While much of Dylan's song catalog is cinematically visual, Dylan himself has appeared in over a dozen films throughout his life. Though he's dismissed some of his on-screen ventures, movies serve as important milestones documenting his prolific and wide-ranging career. From live concerts to dramatic roles, what follows is a chronology of films Dylan has appeared in.
1. The Madhouse on Castle Street (1963)
In his (sorta) acting debut, Dylan was flown to London by the BBC for three weeks to play the lead role in this Evan Jones teleplay. However, reluctant before the lens, the rising folk star was shuffled into the smaller role of “Bobby” who, guitar in hand, ended up playing interpretive music to the main action. First broadcast on January 13, 1963, Dylan performed four songs for this one-hour television special, including "Blowin' in the Wind," "Hang Me, O Hang Me," "Cuckoo Bird," and "Ballad of the Gliding Swan." Unfortunately, as was common practice at the time, the BBC “junked” the master reels in 1968. Scour the vaults as they might, searches have turned up nothing. Meaning gone forever, but by no means forgotten.
Directed by D.A. Pennebaker on Bob Dylan's 1965 British tour, this cinema verité-style black and white masterpiece truly grabs the multi-textured songwriter in his latter early years, by then a fully matured media phenom on the verge of going electric. And mod. Two events that went hand-in-hand. In fact, this tour inspired Bob to ditch the overalls and straw hat and slide into some fashionable leather. Featuring an entourage that included poet Allen Ginsberg, Marianne Faithfull, and Bob Neuwirth, Don't Look Back captures Dylan at his achingly expressive mid-60s peak, signifying the dawn of a henceforth life-as-art approach to the world.
3. Eat the Document (1972)
D.A. Pennebaker once again traveled with Dylan, this time with The Hawks (who soon became The Band) for the 1966 tour of Britain. The idea was to capture Dylan's transition from acoustic folk to amplified rock 'n' roll, but with color film. Disliking Pennebaker's cut, Dylan and director Howard Alk re-edited the footage, paring it down to a 60-minute format for ABC's Studio 67, who had commissioned the project. But finding it too weird for average denizens of TV land, the network refused to air it. Finally screened briefly in New York in 1972, the film's highlights include a Dylan piano duet with Johnny Cash, and the famous drunken limousine ride with John Lennon. Regrettably, Eat the Document remains unreleased for home consumption.
When Dylan crashed his Triumph 500 motorcycle in 1966, he abruptly stopped touring. But during that eight-year hiatus, he did manage to perform at a couple of surprise shows, first at the Isle of Wight festival in 1969, then two years later at George Harrison's Concert for Bangladesh, the very first rock benefit which paved the way for an entire industry focused on rockers raising awareness. Filmed at Madison Square Garden on August 1, 1971, and joined on stage by Ringo Starr playing tambourine, Dylan performed five songs to an estatic audience: "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry," "Blowin' in the Wind," "Mr. Tambourine Man," and "Just Like a Woman."
Shot in Durango, Mexico, the story goes that while chowing down with the cast and crew, director Sam Peckinpah asked Dylan to play him a little something. The kid from Minnesota promptly broke out his guitar and after three or four songs, Peckinpah exclaimed, “Goddamn Kid! Who the hell is he? Who is that kid? Sign him up!” Besides scoring the entire soundtrack for this western, Dylan penned “Knockin' on Heaven's Door” exclusively for the film. Once again, slotted for a larger role, a camera-shy Dylan was recast as “Alias,” a quiet knife-throwing hooligan in Billy's gang. In one of Dylan's few speaking parts, Garrett asks Alias, "Who are you?" and Alias answers (in perfectly scripted Dylan elusiveness), "That's a good question."
Filmed at San Francisco's Winterland Ballroom on November 25, 1976, this Martin Scorcese classic chronicles the Thanksgiving Day farewell concert for The Band, Dylan's stage co-conspirators since late 1965. With guest appearances ranging from Joni Mitchell and Neil Young, to Van Morrison and Muddy Waters, the film features Dylan playing four final songs with The Band backing him up: "Baby Let Me Follow You Down," "Hazel," "I Don't Believe You," and "Forever Young." Initially released by Warner Bros on April 26, 1978, an expanded version with all the little extras was re-released in 2002 as a 25th anniversary DVD box set.
7. Renaldo and Clara (1978)
If you're up to it, you can catch what looks like a 10th generation bootleg of Renaldo and Clara on YouTube in 54 parts. Released on January 25, 1978 (and just as quickly pulled from the screen), Dylan's 232-minute epic romance-adventure was shot during the Rolling Thunder Revue tour of 1975-76. In his second collaboration with director Howard Alk, Dylan's cinematic experiment showcases the talents of anyone lucky enough to have been in that motley entourage, including Joan Baez and Ronee Blakely who play burlesque virgins, cutting to Dylan and Ginsberg at Kerouac's grave, cutting to Dylan in white-face performing live, et alia, ad infinitum. But the million dollar question: When will this film finally get its long-overdue DVD treatment?
8. Hearts of Fire (1987)
In this forgettable Richard Marquand (Return of the Jedi) film, fading rock 'n' roller Billy Parker (Dylan) takes fledgling musician wannabe Molly McGuire (Fiona Flanagan) under his wing and on the road. But when younger rock 'n' roller James Colt (Rupert Everett) rolls in, Miss McGuire predictably shifts affections. Dylan covered John Hiatt's song “The Usual” for the film, on top of contributing two original songs, “Night After Night,” and “Had a Dream About You Baby.”
9. Catchfire (1990)
Dylan appears in a cameo cast as "an artist" in this Dennis Hopper film starring Dennis Hopper, Jodie Foster, Fred Ward, and even master of horror, Vincent Price. The film was subsequently renamed Backtrack.
10. Paradise Cove (1999)
"You can bury the man, but not his secrets!" Now there's a hook that warrants a double take. How anyone induced Dylan to play “Alfred the Chauffeur” in this obscure Robert Clapsadle noirish thriller starring Ben Gazzara and Karen Black is anyone's guess. Was the Dylan franchise suffering an economic stranglehold forcing Dylan to break down and act? Could Dylan have been kicking it on an adjacent set and mistaken for an extra? Regardless, you can't miss the beauty of the Dylan-as-chauffeur analogy here, i.e., leave the driving to Bob.