Getting to Dylan

June 20, 2021 at 15:08

D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back (1966) – which I write about in my forthcoming book, Rock-N-Roll Plays Itself (to be published in early 2022) – might have once been seen simply asa film about a popular singer on tour told through the medium of a new kind of fly-on-the-wall kind of documentary film.

But with so much time having elapsed since it was first released and began to seep into popular culture more broadly the film’s portrait of the star confronting a rapacious media – although this media is admittedly quite tame by today’s standards – whose members are given the kind of close-up and intimate access to an artist at the peak of his early powers that would be hard to imagine being repeated today.

Dylan’s legend would only – and forever – be enhanced by the scenes of wit and cunning and the cat and mouse games with the interrogators we see in Don’t Look Now. The final scene of the film shows a triumphant Dylan after a performance at London’s Royal Albert Hall being carried away in a car with manager Albert Grossman and his sidekick and road manager, Bob Neuwirth, as they make one final jab at the press who had dogged him throughout the tour. ‘Anarchist,’ Neuwirth says. ‘That’s what they are calling you, because you are not protesting correctly.’ ‘Really. Am I an anarchist?’ Dylan laughs. ‘Maybe I am … Hey, give the anarchist a cigarette!’

It is a key element in the Dylan mythology.

Yet when it comes to the movies, Dylan was also shown to be merely mortal, a presence who perhaps suffered from not being the centre of attention, as in his role in the determinedly un-rock’n’roll western, Pat Garret and Billy the Kid. More mystifying is his decision to take a prominent role as some anonymous rock star in 1986’s Hearts on Fire, a straight-to-video nasty, in which he played opposite Rupert Everett and a little known Canadian singer and actress called Fiona Flanagan. The film is even more odd given that Dylan as Dylan – and partly because of the work that Don’t Look Back did in establishing an image of rock stardom – became the source of one of the most powerful of all rock star archetypes: the romantic outsider who channels reality through a collision of visionary images with a new kind of rock’n’roll sound.

1987’s Hearts of Fire

The question, then, is how can such a figure – such a man-as-myth – end up ‘playing’ some half-sketched stand in for the real thing?

But then again was Hearts of Fire as odd of choice as it seemed on its release? When viewed within the context of Dylan’s apparently faltering powers in the eighties (and later revelations of his need to earn money), it might just have been his way of trying to reassert the inscrutable public persona that Don’t Look Back had established. Along with the tours he undertook with the Grateful Dead and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers in this era, and then collaborations that produced the Traveling Wilburys, the man who ‘wasn’t there’ was perhaps finding himself again by becoming … more enigmatic and elusive.

A BBC documentary titled ‘Getting to Dylan’ made around the time when Hearts of Fire was being filmed is one of the best films about how Dylan played the media for his own ends and even features amusing footage of the singer talking to some young teenagers who are hanging around outside his trailer. ‘Oh, you like Ozzy?’ he says to the kids. ‘How about Ratt …?’ Back inside the trailer, as filmmaker Christopher Sykes tries to probe for some meaning to the whole Dylan enigma, attempting to get Dylan to pin himself down, it seems that the discussion is not really going to go anywhere.

As an opener, Sykes raises the interesting thought that Dylan’s songs are actually very ‘film-like’, an interpretation that Dylan is keen not to allow anyone to think is what he thinks. ‘All Along the Watchtower, for example … it’s like very tight visual imagery, like it has been written at enormous length and then had things stripped out of it, leaving only these kind of key images and then suggestions of sound and stuff in it’, Sykes says. ‘I suppose what I want to know is that when you write a song, am I right about you doing it like that? …’

Dylan: ‘No’

Sykes: ‘How do you do it then?’

Dylan: ‘Many ways …’

Sykes: ‘They’re stories with visual images …’

Dylan: ‘Uh-uh, I don’t know whether they are [that] … they are whatever they are to whoever is listening to them. No, I don’t do those things, I don’t have those plans, I don’t have any set way of writing songs …’

Having slipped free of this attempt to pin him as a ‘cinematic’ songwriter, we see Dylan – who has been scribbling away the entire time on a sheet of paper from Sykes’ production notes – hand Sykes the finished product: a drawing of his interrogator. ‘That’s very flattering,’ a baffled Sykes says.

‘Getting to Dylan’, Omnibus, BBC One, first broadcast 18 September 1987. It can be viewed in four parts at Youtube.