Jokerman: Bob Dylan’s cinematic aliases

As Martin Scorsese’s new Bob Dylan documentary hits screens, Manuela Lazic explores a handful of his big-screen acting roles.

Manuela Lazic
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Renaldo and Clara (1978)

Renaldo and Clara (1978)

Any musician or band listened to in your formative years ends up feeling particularly meaningful after the fact. These artists and their work seem to hold a truth about what music can and should be, but also about what the function of art at large really is – ideas that will inform your taste for the rest of your life. Teenage fandom also means that such talented individuals become models of identity building, aspirational figures that seem to whisper to you and only you that it’s okay to be weird. They tell you to just be yourself.

As generations of people have, I became a Bob Dylan fan as an angry, restless and curious teenager, and ended up listening to Blonde on Blonde, Highway 61 Revisited and Blood on the Tracks on a constant loop after buying them mainly for their recognisable cover art. It was Dylan’s oddness, with his raspy voice and tumultuously poetic lyrics, that intrigued me at first and then offered reassurance: this was a man who was always entirely himself. Why would you choose to sound so abrasive if you didn’t love that about yourself? Why would you write such ambiguous – if not always outright meaningless – lists of words if you didn’t feel proud of your strange brain?

Dont Look Back (1967)

Dont Look Back (1967)

With Dont Look Back, D.A. Pennebaker’s 1967 documentary following Dylan on his 1965 UK tour, the director grafted images to this idea of Dylan as the most authentic musician – and perhaps man – alive. Capturing his subject on stage, and especially in between performances as he confronted journalists, Pennebaker presented Dylan as always uncompromising and reluctant, even towards the documentarian himself. In the film, Dylan goofs around, responding to questions with questions, but not to please anyone except himself: he covers his tracks to remain purely himself, always inaccessible even when he’s present.

Dont Look Back showed Dylan’s controversial decision to go electric after becoming famous as an acoustic folk artist – a move that saw him branded a Judas. His refusal to be considered a folk hero à la Woody Guthrie suggests that Dylan’s authenticity isn’t of the typical kind. His way of remaining true to himself isn’t to stay the same while the world around him changes (like the Rolling Stones, who ironically get their name from a blues song that also inspired one of Dylan’s most famous hits); instead, Dylan, like the more exuberant shape-shifter David Bowie, maintains his identity by never sticking to one that can be clearly defined.

Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973)

Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973)

“Names are labels so we can refer to one another. But deep inside us we don’t have a name. We have no name. I just chose that name and it stuck.” This reasoning behind why Robert Zimmerman became Bob Dylan, explained to Ron Rosenbaum in a surprisingly candid 1978 Playboy interview, also shines a light on the name of the singer-songwriter-actor’s mysterious character in 1973’s Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid.

Dylan’s ‘Alias’ is a man of few words who ends up helping unruly cowboy the Kid (Kris Kristofferson), but, after throwing a knife into a man’s throat, the line between the character and the singer himself seems to disappear. In what looks like an outtake, the short and skinny 31-year-old Dylan is seen giving a thumbs-up to someone behind the camera, before walking away awkwardly with a shy smile on his face. Next to Kristofferson’s typically 1970s naturalistic performance, and thanks to Sam Peckinpah’s predilection for non-verbal acting, Dylan’s quietness punctured with boyishness is captured as it is, strange yet compelling, out of place and incomprehensible in the stereotype-laden genre of the western. Violent and unperturbed, snarky and shy, Dylan as Alias is Dylan, ever-changing yet always on the side of the outlaw. 

When he took control of his own film persona with Renaldo and Clara, the 1978 commercial and critical flop that he co-wrote with Sam Shepard and directed himself, Dylan splintered his identity even further. In his memoir of the experience, Shepard wrote that Dylan “made himself up from scratch. That is, from the things he had around him and inside him.” Renaldo and Clara, shot without a script during Dylan’s iconic 1975 tour with the Rolling Thunder Revue, indeed has the scattered and lived-in feeling of Jack Kerouac’s travelogues, of the suggestive poetry of Allen Ginsberg’s Beat writings (the poet is heavily featured in the film), and also of Dylan’s own long (the film’s runtime comes close to four hours), rambling and abstract songs. The titular characters seem to be surrogates for Dylan and his then-wife Sara Dylan, and even though the artist himself appears in the film, Renaldo is played by several other Rolling Thunder musicians throughout, and so is Clara, while ‘Bob Dylan’ himself is interpreted by musician Ronnie Hawkins. The film’s plot, revolving around a romance that turns sour, is hard to grasp and not as engrossing as the idea of Dylan mythologising himself further by dissociating from his persona in more unequivocal and provocative ways.

Renaldo and Clara (1978)

Renaldo and Clara (1978)

Renaldo and Clara deserves special attention for its astounding live footage of Dylan and his friends turning his most popular acoustic hits, such as ‘Tangled Up in Blue’, into harder, more desperately sorrowful songs, during which Dylan himself seems particularly changed. Underneath a wide hat always adorned with fresh flowers, the singer’s face is sheathed in a disturbing plastic mask or covered in white paint. But even as the light makes him look like only a ghost of himself, it also accentuates his blue eyes, as though the essence of Dylan was better allowed to shine through when his own person was hidden, in perpetual flux.

As its title hints, Larry Charles’ 2003 film Masked and Anonymous embraces Dylan’s taste for camouflage fully, becoming itself a disguise behind which the musician can better reveal himself. Co-writer Dylan plays Jack Fate, an iconic but outmoded singer in his 60s, who is released from jail in a fictional (but prescient) divided nation to play a benefit concert for an ambiguous cause. The ballad of a thin man at the mercy of masters of war, the film is a composite of Dylan’s sensibilities – more precisely, of scribbled-down lyrics and fancy names the artist had collected in a box for years – in which he disappears for his ideas to be better incarnated by a plethora of characters: an angry young folk musician (Luke Wilson), a once-politically engaged music journalist turned sour (Jeff Bridges), a sad-eyed lady disappointed in love (Jessica Lange). Todd Haynes played with a similar idea in his 2007 film I’m Not There, in which Dylan was a structuring absence.

Masked and Anonymous (2003)

Masked and Anonymous (2003)

Next to the impenetrable Dylan, Masked and Anonymous’s high-ranking character actors seem to be playing with their own personas, too, adding more layers to the collection of myths that Dylan has amassed through his life: Bridges as an older and frustrated Dude has a fight with John Goodman, who appears as a more conservative and downtrodden version of his Walter Sobchak character from The Big Lebowski (the 1998 film in which the identity of Lebowski was itself a source of discord). Dylan’s songs themselves appear in altered states, occasionally performed by himself and his (and Fate’s) band, ‘A Simple Twist of Fate,’ but more often by other musicians in different styles and languages, even as they correspond in their topics to what is occuring in the plot. Under the guise of a vanity project, Masked and Anonymous reveals Dylan’s selflessness, in both meanings of the word – as a denial of a single identity, and a profound generosity towards his audience, letting them take ownership of his entire creation, from his songs to his very persona.

At the end of Masked and Anonymous, Dylan in voiceover gives perhaps his most eye-opening statement of intent: “Sometimes it’s not enough to know the meaning of things; sometimes we have to know what things don’t mean as well.” All throughout his career, people have looked to Dylan for answers to the big questions because he seemed to have it all figured out, but this authenticity I admired in him as a teenager was marked by constant change. On his 1965 classic ‘Maggie’s Farm,’ Dylan lamented: “Well I try my best to be just like I am, but everybody wants you to be just like them,” so every time critics and listeners thought they knew who Dylan was, he would change his ways – by switching to the electric guitar, modulating his timbre of voice on ‘Nashville Skyline’, or wearing masks. He has always been honest about what he doesn’t mean: he is no folk singer or protest singer or circus performer, and certainly not a prophet. But as Jack Fate declares: “Truth and beauty are in the eye of the beholder.” With his many variations against interpretation, Dylan gives his audience the freedom to see him, and therefore themselves, as whatever they please. He wants us to be all our selves.

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