Bob Dylan Songs That Could be Movies, Part One

In the spring of 1996, when I was a college sophomore, I decided that I should introduce myself to Bob Dylan. That’s just what college kids were supposed to do. On a whim, I bought Highway 61 Revisited. And I’ve gone bananas for Dylan ever since. There are loads of reasons for people to enjoy Dylan. For me, as much as anything else, it’s the depth of his lyrics. They weave amazing stories with multiple layers. They’re intensely personal and human in every way. But they have just enough of a dash of the cryptic to make it relatable for anyone. As it turns out, these are all elements that lend themselves to screenplays. There are many, many Dylan songs that I’ve always thought were ripe for the rigors of a screenplay. There are so many that I’ve broken it up into two parts. Here’s part one.

Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts
This is always the first example I think of when I think of Dylan songs that should be movies. There have actually been two screenplays commissioned about the song, neither of which ever became a film. The song tells the tale of a town in the American west. The “Jack of Hearts” is a winsome stranger who, unbeknownst to the residents of a small gold-mining town, helms a gang of bank robbers. Dylan weaves a story around a gang of central characters, featuring a handful of secondary characters, all lured in by the charms of the Jack of Hearts. It’s a shame that it never became a movie because it would be an incredible film.

Romance in Durango
Clinton Heylin has written a great deal about Dylan, and refers to this song as “the climax to an unmade Sam Peckinpah movie in song”. If you’re familiar with Dylan and Peckinpah, and especially that particular song, then you get the reference. It’s all about a pair of star-crossed lovers on the run from the law in Mexico. I love it enough that I honestly envy the life of the people in the song.

The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest
This song is so tremendously cryptic. I’ve been trying to figure it out for 15 years and I’m no closer to understanding it now than I was when I first heard it. But there are clear themes that deal with this world–Frankie Lee–and the temptations of money and women, represented by Judas Priest. It ends with the line “the moral of this story, the moral of this song, is simply that one should never be where one does not belong”, to help one’s neighbor with his load, and “don’t go mistaking Paradise/for that home across the road.” I’ve asked a lot of people who’ve heard this song what they thought it was about and they’ve all given different answers. And that’s ripe for a movie.

Joey
If ever there was a song that should be turned into a movie directed by Martin Scorsese, it’s Bob Dylan’s “Joey”. It’s a sympathetic view of a mobster–”Crazy Joe” Gallo. Dylan paints him as an underdog, a noble mobster, fighting against the power-holding elite. I can’t find a clip of the song, but I’d obviously encourage anyone to sample and buy the song.

Isis
This is yet another example of Dylan being cryptic. The song alludes to a marriage to “Isis”–the Egyptian Goddess of fertility–and his separation from her. What takes place during the separation is fantastical. It features the chase of fool’s gold before realizing the folly of his ways. He then returns to “Isis” (most likely an allusion to Dylan’s ex-wife), where they reconcile. It’s a tremendous blend of Egyptian and Mexican mythology (the fifth day of May playing an integral role).

Black Diamond Bay
I tend to think of this as the Caribbean cousin to the Tex-Mexican “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts”. This is primarily because of the density of the story. It describes the intense panic of island residents during the destruction of an island, paired with the indifference of a news-watcher witnessing the events ambivalently. You can find the song here.

Like a Rolling Stone
The “Ms. Lonely” of Dylan’s epic song experiences quite a life. She started at the top–nobody’s ever taught her how to live on the streets–and winds up staring into the vacuum of the eyes of a mystery tramp and making a deal. It’s a tremendous character arc about a young society girl, “a complete unknown”, who falls from grace. Every line in the song punctuates her saga. Side note–this is my favorite song ever made, and it features my favorite line of any song ever made. “When you got nothin’, you got nothin’ to lose. You’ve got no secrets left to conceal”. Any filmmaker who could bring that to life the way Dylan did would have an incredible movie on their hands.


15 Comments

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15 responses to “Bob Dylan Songs That Could be Movies, Part One

  1. Phil

    Another great post. I’ll need to look through my playlists to guess what will be in part 2. I remember seeing ‘I’m Not There’ at a film festival and liking it, but being disappointed that the movie didn’t use more imagery from Dylan’s songs.

    • Maybe I should have you write it. I’ve got a checklist for the 2nd part, but it may be a few days before I get to it.

      I sort of feel like it’s a list that could go on forever. I bet there are 50 Dylan songs dense enough that the lyrics could be a screenplay.

  2. I’m not familiar w/ Dylan’s music at all, yes I know that’s blasphemy since I live in Minnesota, ahah. But looking at your list, yeah they totally could be movies!

  3. Dude

    What about Hurricane… Oh wait, yeah…

  4. The guy who met Kevin Meany

    What’s great about Dylan is that we could both come up with a list of 30 Dylan songs and there quite possibly would be no overlap between our lists.

    • The guy who met Kevin Meany

      To add to this, I know several people who consider Bob Dylan to be among their favorite artists however they began liking Dylan from completely separate albums. Mine are “Bringing It All Back Home”, “Planet Waves”, “Nashville Skyline”, “Highway 61 Revisited”. I have a friend whose favorites are “Blood on the Tracks” and “Blonde on Blonde.” This friend hasn’t listened to my favorite Dylan albums and I’m not really very familiar with his favorites. That’s saying something impressive about the man’s catalogue. How many other musician’s can you say that about? Maybe the Beatles.

      • Phil

        If you’re a Dylan fan, you need to go out an buy ‘Blood on the Tracks’ and ‘Blonde on Blonde’ – two of the greatest albums of all time, by anyone. The difference between Dylan and the Beatles is the amount of material – Dylan’s first album came out almost 50 years ago and he is still touring.

        • There’s a lot of truth in that sentiment. I was talking about this with a friend the other night and he’s very strictly an early Dylan fan. Desire, Self-Portrait, I think Blood on the Tracks, and the Rolling Thunder Revue stuff is off limits to him. And for me, that’s my favorite Dylan era.

          Off the top of my head, if I had to do a top 5 album list, it’d include Desire, Blood on the Tracks, Highway 61 Revisited, Bringing it All Back Home, and probably Blonde on Blonde. But there are tons of other albums that I could just as easily plug in there.

    • Yeah, definitely. I’ve got 20 total songs in the list but you could easily do tons more.

  5. Dylan’s music and lyrics is so unique and dense that even the greatest filmmakers out there couldn’t even get a grasp of his storytelling. I just hope he would have been behind a camera to write and direct his own films… I am a Dylan fan too and I bet you saw it but Todd Haynes I’m Not There sure gets us a little view of what it could look like to watch Dylan’s world taking life…

  6. Dude, doesn’t that guy form We Need To Talk About Kevin look like Dylan? I smell a biopic incoming

  7. Great topic. I have always “seen” a flickering black and white version of Highlands from Time Out of Mind rolling by. Even the pacing of the song sets the imagery. ” … I said I would if I could, but I don’t do sketches from memory”

  8. Richard

    Great thoughts. For 40+ years I’ve imagined “Visions of Johanna” on the stage with projections, dance, and puppets, along with screened flashbacks… or maybe just a movie… Sh*t, I better go listen again.

  9. Pingback: Bob Dylan Songs That Could be Movies, Part Two |

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