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.
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.
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.