Spotlight: Bob Dylan In Film

December 30, 2008 by Derrick Faw · 1 Comment
Filed under: Cinephile, Music 

Love him or hate him. Few people have the ability to be indifferent about Bob Dylan. No other artist has been so credited and yet so criticized. Through his career, he has been analyzed and categorized, though seldom if ever understood. It is no wonder the man has kept himself elusive to the press and his private life out of the spotlight. I admit to speak with bias, having been a long time fan of his work. Regardless of your opinions or preconceptions of the man, his contributions and influence can not be overrated. He is a legend in his own time, and for all times to come. Among other things he is a singer, a musician, a songwriter, a poet, a painter, an author, a radio broadcaster, an actor, and a filmmaker. One of his most admirable traits is his ability to evolve. He has never seemed content, and always looking to grow and explore different aspects of life and the world around us. Though for some fans and the media, his changes have erupted into controversy and criticism. In hindsight it is his genius that is remembered. Few of the great artist in history ever got the credit they deserved in their own lifetime. Dylan has experienced it all.

Pennebaker filming Dylan

Pennebaker filming Dylan

As the story goes, Dylan (Robert Allen Zimmerman) came out of Hibbing, Minnesota where he not only began his study into music but was also an avid movie goer at the local theater. It was built by his uncles and named after his grandmother, so he received free admittance and was known to often take advantage. With big ideas and dreams in hand he ventured out of Hibbing and took on the world. In early 1961 he dropped out of college and headed to New York City with great hopes of coming face to face with Woody Guthrie. Guthrie was one of the cornerstone influences that inspired Dylan’s direction in his own career. This was a great time in American culture. As Dylan would so eloquently put it “The times are a-changin”. Change and revolution was in the air, creativity and inspiration was everywhere. After having done a brief tour of the Greenwich Village coffee shop scene, Dylan had his first album in 1962. In the following years he would be heralded as messiah type figure in the folk movement, a leader in political protest, and a voice of the civil rights movement. Dylan himself was very uncomfortable with this kind of categorization and the expectations people had of him. Everyone wanted a piece of what they thought he should be, instead of simply taking what he had to offer. By 1965, Dylan had already reached a legendary status. As mentioned in Volume 1 in this series of post, filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker captured Dylan’s remarkable UK tour on 16mm for his documentary Don’t Look Back. This turned out to be a landmark in the genre of documentaries, not to mention adding to the mystery of Dylan himself. Pennebaker is considered to be one of the driving forces in the development of Direct Cinema. Direct Cinema can be described as an intention to truthfully document events and people. Rather or not Dylan is truthfully portrayed in this film is a matter of opinion. Dylan acts upon his own image throughout the film. The film shows very well how Dylan handled the press. He is quick witted, confrontational, vague, and answers questions with questions. He was all the things you would not expect a popular star to be. In reality it shows the foresight and genius of the man, who didn’t want live up to anyone’s image or preconceptions of him. Throughout the film we catch glimpses of Dylan writing and simply hanging out with friends and making music. A true highlight of the film is Dylan’s solo performances on stage. One can not watch without a feeling of seeing history being made. This film is on the shelf of most every Bob Dylan fan around the world. Most importantly it produced a whole new dialog in how music and film could communicate. Pennebaker would recap Don’t Look Back in 2007 with 65 Revisited, a collection of outtakes and performances.

Don't Look BackDon't Look BackDon't Look Back

Pennebaker would take again to his top hat and hand held camera the following year to follow Dylan back to Europe for what turned out to be one of the most unforgettable tours in the history of music. This film titled Eat The Document has rarely been seen outside of world of hard core Dylan collectors. Copies circulating in these circles are of very poor quality. Recently, Martin Scorsese used some wonderful footage from this film in his documentary No Direction Home. Possibly one day the film will be restored and reedited as a commercial release. It shows a very important time in the history of rock music. Added treats to the film include segments with people like Johnny Cash and John Lennon. It was rejected by ABC television as being “incomprehensible to a mainstream audience” much the same way Dylan himself was received during this tour. The once one man folk balladeer plugged in his electric guitar and rewrote the book on popular music and rock and roll. He had already made his electrical debut at the Newport Folk festival in 1965.

Eat The DocumentEat The DocumentEat The Document

For the 1966 world tour, he backed himself with The Hawks and thus were murmured the famous words, “Play F**cking Loud” as unappreciative folk fans clasped their hands to their ears. They felt betrayed and left behind, but Dylan forged ahead in making his art. Fans who idolized the man were now booing and referring to him as a “Judas”. After the tour it did not take long for fans to catch up in their understanding and his popularity and influence would forever be etched in the annals of music. His backing band, The Hawks, would be known as The Band after this tour. The press often mentioned statements like, “Dylan’s acoustic set was wonderful, but when the band came on it was horrible”. Never being mentioned as anything but “the band”, the name stuck. The Hawks were Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson, and Robbie Robertson. Helm opted out of this tour and was temporarily replaced by Mickey Jones who would go on to be the drummer for Kenny Roger’s First Edition. Probably best remembered by most for his work in Breath Savers commercials and a regular on the hit television series Home Improvement. Jones happened to bring along his own camera on the tour and produced his own documentary about the tour in 2003, titled World Tour 1966: The Home Movies. Below are a couple of stills from Jone’s footage giving us a glimpse of Eat The Document behind the scenes.

World Tour 1966: The Home MoviesWorld Tour 1966: The Home MoviesWorld Tour 1966: The Home Movies

After the 1966 world tour Dylan took a long hiatus from the public spotlight, maybe due to a motorcycle accident or for what I assume to be highly personal reasons. At this time he lived near Woodstock, New York. Living in close proximity to his previous collaborators, The Hawks or The Band, he would continue to grow and develop his music. I am a big fan of the music they created together, as well as individually. The members of The Band exhibited talent and charisma unsurpassed. When listening back to some of the performances and albums of this era, I am particularly drawn to Garth Hudson. I am amazed by his ability to bring in old sounds and instruments and make them new again.

Dylan reemerged again in film in 1973 with Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. He played the knife wielding store clerk named Alias. He befriends Billy the Kid played by fellow musical icon Kris Kristofferson. Although his role is relativity small and has little bearing on the story, his presence cannot go unnoticed. Not only did he have an acting role, he had an even bigger contribution as the composer of the soundtrack. It mostly consist of instrumental work reflecting Dylan’s ventures in Nashville based sounds. From this movie we get the legendary song Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door, which was used in the death scene of Sheriff Colin Baker played by Slim Pickens.

Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid

1978 would mark the release of Dylan’s own attempt at filmmaking with Renaldo and Clara. This rarely seen film received a lot of press for being incoherent, and therefore was widely rejected by movie theaters. The movie is made up of a combination of concert footage and documentary clips intertwined with a fiction story of Renaldo, played by Dylan, and Clara, his wife Sara. The cast includes members of Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue which toured the country between 1975 and 1976. Included in the film is footage of Alan Ginsberg reading poetry, Dylan visiting Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, and a visit to the grave of Jack Kerouac. Rather or not audiences find the theatrics of the film understandable or enjoyable, the concert footage stands out as a true testament to Dylan’s stage prowess during one of the most creative and energetic periods of his career. Dylan would also appear in film The Last Waltz by Martin Scorsese, also released in 1978, and further discussed in Volume 2 of this series.

Renaldo And ClaraRenaldo And ClaraRenaldo And Clara

In 1987 Dylan would have the starring role in Hearts of Fire by Richard Marquand. This film was, without a more accurate description, a disaster. Though as a tried and true fan, I can find appreciation in seeing Dylan in a film, and that is the only quality that makes it worth watching. Dylan would also make a brief appearance in Dennis Hopper’s Catchfire AKA Backtrack (1990) and Robert Clapsadle’s Paradise Cove (1999). He would even make a guest appearance on the television sitcom Dharma & Greg.

Hearts Of FireHearts Of FireCatchfire

In 2003, Dylan would make, in my opinion, his biggest mark in film. He wrote and starred in Masked and Anonymous, directed by Larry Charles. It is the story of a benefit concert in the midst of a third world hell. This surrealistic film probes the world we are living in and where we are headed, as only Dylan can deliver. It is an absurd fiction revealing a deeper truth. The film reminds me of the insight and relevance Dylan became so famous for. The story is quite simple, but is a very effective vehicle for delivering the message. The film is very well acted by Dylan and an all-star cast including such names as John Goodman, Jeff Bridges, Penélope Cruz, Jessica Lange, Ed Harris, Chris Penn, Val Kilmer, Christian Slater, Mickey Rourke, and Cheech Marin. Dylan uses his own touring band of the time for the live music sequences. They are Tony Garnier, Larry Campbell, Charlie Sexton, and George Receli. The remaining music tracks for the film were very nice versions of Dylan songs by other performers, even translated to different languages.

Masked and AnnonymousMasked and AnnonymousMasked and Annonymous

In 2005 Martin Scorsese would release the definitive documentary on Dylan’s early career with No Direction Home. Following Dylan’s book Chronicles, it gives us a honest and personal glimpse of Dylan from himself and several of his acquaintances. In the interview sections with Dylan, we see him as never before, a truer side of himself. Unlike his elusiveness and mischief to the press, which he was so noted for, he obviously took this project very serious and was ready to open up for it. The film doesn’t try to glorify or make fame, it just tells the story from various sides. Scorsese had access to and used amazing footage of Dylan. Some that had been unseen and others with crystal quality like the 1966 Pennebaker footage.

No Direction HomeNo Direction HomeNo Direction HomeNo Direction HomeNo Direction HomeNo Direction HomeNo Direction HomeNo Direction HomeNo Direction Home

I’m Not There by Todd Haynes (2007) doesn’t feature Dylan but is a lose interpretation of his life, personified by six different characters. Each of which represents a turning point in Dylan’s career. Although this film was well received and raved about in some circles, I am not a fan. I found it quite tasteless and boring. Many of the scenes were reproductions or interpretations of events known mostly to the Dylan fanatic. Though the film lacks in script, I give it credit for its boldness and artistic expression. For me the only saving grace to the film was the performance of Going To Acapulco by Jim James and the band Calexico. James beautifully delivers the song while painted in white face as Dylan often appeared in the Rolling Thunder concerts. Cate Blanchett played the role of the “Judas” Bob Dylan going electric at the Newport Folk Festival. I was turned off by her performance, but admit it was interesting seeing her as Dylan.

I'm Not ThereI'm Not There

Though Dylan will probably not go into history as a legend of film, his impact has been noticed. Not only by ground breaking works like Don’t Look Back, but also from the nearly 250 films that have used his songs in their soundtracks. There are likely to be many more as time unravels. Among his long list of awards such as a Pulitzer Prize and several Grammy Awards is an Academy Award for Best Original Song in a motion picture in 2000.  The impact and presence of Dylan fills the content of books and is hard to confine to a blog post. It is worthy to note that many performance materials are available both officially and underground. Several titles are available on DVD of Dylan’s historical performances like The Other Side of the Mirror: Bob Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival by Murray Lerner or MTV Unplugged. Several hundred other videos circulate of various interviews, concerts, and appearances. Dylan has also been the subject of several non affiliated documentaries in various languages from around the world. Looking in hindsight, we might one day look back and find out that his biggest contribution was not in the music or films but purely in the thoughts and inspirations his work has provoked.

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Spotlight: The Band – The Last Waltz

December 10, 2008 by Derrick Faw · 7 Comments
Filed under: Cinephile, Music 

“This film should be played loud!”

It is beautiful, it is inspirational, it is exhilarating, all these things in the face of a solemn occasion. It is The Band’s The Last Waltz filmed by Martin Scorsese. Mostly consisting of concert footage from The Band’s final concert on Thanksgiving Day, November 25, 1976. Bill Graham hosted this event at his Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, which happened to be the first place The Band ever played under the name “The Band”. It was a kind of “by the skin of your teeth” experiment, not only in filmmaking but also musically. Scorsese is well know as fanatical movie buff, but he is a great lover of music as well. Just listen to most any soundtrack from his films. Being an admirer of The Band, the collaboration produced a special magic never yet matched. The Band by the way consist of a misplaced Southerner and 4 Canadians. They are Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson, and Robbie Robertson. They began as the backup group for Ronnie Hawkins and then Bob Dylan on his legendary 1966 world tour, where he unleashed his brand of rock and roll to unexpecting folk fans, Then they where known to the world as The Hawks. After so much press of this tour would only refer to them in comments like Bob Dylan and “the band”, the name stuck and they became The Band. They would continue to collaborate with Dylan off and on throughout their existence. No other group was ever able to capture all the roots, history, and atmosphere of America and put them together so genuinely.

Levon Helm

Levon Helm

Rick Danko

Rick Danko

Richard Manuel

Richard Manuel

Garth Hudson

Garth Hudson

Ronnie Hawkins and Robbie Robertson

Ronnie Hawkins and Robbie Robertson

The audience really had no idea what they were in for that night just there may be some special guest. The event started at 5:00 pm, a crowd of 5000 people were served turkey dinners followed by ballroom dancing with music performed by the Berkeley Promenade Orchestra. Then after reading of poetry The Band hit the stage at 9:00 pm and the music went on until the the early hours of the morning. All the members of the band were at the top of their game and their guest were sensational. Throughout the concert the audience was continually treated with a barrage of musical talent playing with The Band. Including: Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, Ronnie Hawkins, Dr. John, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Neil Diamond, Paul Butterfield, Ringo Starr, Ronnie Wood, Stephan Stills, Bobby Charles, Bob Margolin, and Joe “Pinetop” Perkins. Each guest had a reason for being there. Invited by The Band as a whole or from individual members, they all represent elements of American music.

Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan

Muddy Waters

Muddy Waters

Neil Young

Neil Young

Robertson had one choice in mind for the film, he wanted Martin Scorsese. Through a mutual friend, Jonathan Taplin, they would meet and form a lasting bond. Taplin had been the road manager for Bob Dylan and The Band and later went on to produce the film Mean Streets. Marty was no stranger to filming music either. He was the first assistant director and principle editor of the film Woodstock. Scorsese’s was already busy in the process of filming at the time. The film New York, New York was over budget and behind schedule. Scorsese was under contract making it virtually impossible to shoot another film, especially on the other side of the country. It came as you could say a labor of love, something that he simply could not refuse. In the process he did something that had never been done before. Winterland was converted into a set and the footage was filmed on 35mm. With an elaborate plan of lighting and camera positions the concert was converted into a theatrical performance. The stage was even decorated with 3 crystal chandeliers said to have been used in Gone With The Wind. The set was borrowed from the San Francisco Opera’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata. In all 7 cameras were used by some of the most noted cinematographers. Scorsese went to great lengths to create a 200 page musical script. The whole concert was set to a storyboard complete with illustrations. Taking the lyrics of the songs to be played and matching them with camera angles and movements and with lighting effects. As could be expected with a live performance, the crew had to keep on their feet. Due to the length of a role of film and fatigue of the camera men, not all of the concert could be caught on film. Scorsese used a headphone system to communicate with his cameramen. Giving them valuable detail of what shots and movements he wanted at the precise time. Though due to his “heated stream of instructions” veteran cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs became annoyed and removed his headset early in the show. By a simple twist of fate, what turned out to be one of the greatest moments of the whole show was rescued by this revolt. While all the other cameras were taking time to reload, Muddy Waters was giving a phenomenal performance of Mannish Boy. Kovacs’s camera caught skillfully captured this moving event. His footage was used up until the very last seconds of the song, by that time the others had scrambled their rigs back in working order. The famed David Myers was another key cameraman in the filming lineup. Robertson had his guitar bronzed for the event. Later on it was offered to Scorsese as a gift, and now resides in the Cappa Office in Manhattan.

The Staples

The Staples

Martin Scorsese and Rick Danko

Martin Scorsese and Rick Danko

Martin Scorsese's Notes

Martin Scorsese

The film also featured amazing studio takes of The Weight performed with the Staples (Roebuck “Pops”, Mavis, Yvonne, and Cleotha Staples), Evangeline with Emmylou Harris, and also The Band performing The Last Waltz Theme. To add to the music, interview segments were made at a point after the concert at The Band’s Shangri-La studio in Malibu. It was an old bordello converted into their office, work, and play area. The interviews give the film a whole new dimension, giving a glimpse of who these people are and where they came from. Somewhat filled with melancholy, it showed the reminiscence and reflection of what they had just been through the last 16 years as a group. The Last Waltz is like a snapshot, a night frozen in time, of what became of the 60′s and what the 70′s were about. For Scorsese fits in with his other films of the time making a series of documentaries about America. This trilogy consist of Italianamerican, American Boy: A Profile of: Steven Prince, and of course The Last Waltz. Technically speaking the film is virtually flawless, a great accomplishment for filming a live event. I invite any of you to check out this film or soundtrack, and if you are familiar with it, check it out again, it never gets old. Special thanks to Samantha for teaching me a lot about this wonderful moment in the history of music.