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10 Bob Dylan Songs That Made Films Better

on March 28, 2017, 12:00am
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In 2004, Bob Dylan appeared alongside Victoria’s Secret Angel Adriana Lima in a commercial spot that used his song “Love Sick”. The paranoid tune pulses as Dylan and the scantily clad but fully plumed Lima make blue eyes at each other from a distance. (She also makes off with his cowboy hat; Angel, my ass.) The cries of “sellout” rang out from some internet corners like accusations of “Judas” had 40 years earlier while others considered it a patient punchline to a 1965 comment in which Dylan promised he would only sell out for “ladies undergarments.” Personally, I couldn’t really think of a snugger fit for a song as alienated and obsessive as “Love Sick”. Creepily eyeballing a girl in her unmentionables seems about right for that song’s protagonist.

And that’s sort of the point with Dylan. He’s got more songs than licensers or filmmakers know what to do with, and really, what do you do with most of them? Dylan, a mythical figure of sorts, has spent most of his career out of step with the rest of us – either prophetically ahead or anachronistically behind – and his songs are no simpler to pin down. Many of the song-film pairings on this list are fairly recent, and I’m not sure that’s a coincidence. Maybe it took the passage of time and for these songs to be adopted by new generations before they somehow found homes in films that didn’t feel awkward or, worse yet, arbitrary. Some are rather unlikely fits as well, but again, when has Dylan ever been predictable?

The following 10 songs, all written and performed by Dylan, share one other thing in common, though: If you remove them from their corresponding films, something profound goes missing. Call them instances of perfect composing, inspired soundtracking, or happy accidents, but these are films that just wouldn’t be the same without accompaniment from that guy in the lingerie ads.

–Matt Melis
Editorial Director

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10. “4th Time Around”

Vanilla Sky (2001)

The humble writers of this article may never agree on Cameron Crowe’s psychological thriller Vanilla Sky. Personally, if you have to march out Noah Taylor in pastels for 20 minutes to explain the entire movie and break the news to us that Kurt Russell doesn’t exist, I think the script probably could’ve used some tinkering. But Taylor’s debriefing does grant insights into the beautiful use of Dylan’s “4th Time Around” in a key scene. Before we know anything about David’s (Tom Cruise) cryo-contract or experience his “glitch,” we find the character with Sofia (Penélope Cruz), his face fully restored and their love rekindled. Dylan’s song waltzes around them as they lie in bed talking, teasing, and making love in what feels like a rebirth for them. In that moment, transgressions have been forgiven, the world has opened wide, and nothing matters but each other. In fact, it may only be hardcore Dylan fans who understand that something doesn’t add up as David and Sofia walk down the street, creating a near-identical replica of the cover art from Dylan’s The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. In a sense, Crowe uses Dylan’s music not only to make a once-suffering man’s dream come true but also to drop the hint to audiences that all is but a dream. –Matt Melis

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09. “Like a Rolling Stone”

New York Stories (1989)

Save for Francis Ford Coppola’s garbage segment, New York Stories remains a commendable anthology film that features two shorts by Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen, both of which are essential in either director’s respective oeuvre. Scorsese’s chapter, titled Life Lessons, is a torturous affair that follows a manic and stormy abstract artist named Lionel Dobie (Nick Nolte at his most savage and beastly), who can’t shake off his love and infatuation for his apprentice (played with sexual dynamite by Rosanna Arquette). Eventually, Dobie pours his feelings of resentment and anxiety into his own artwork, and it’s here that Scorsese swims deeper into his conscience with a shot selection that could best be described as erratic. Each scene is soundtracked to perfection, especially any involving Procul Harum’s melancholy “A Whiter Shade of Pale”, but it’s a rare 1974 bootleg of Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” that provides all the necessary catharsis. When Dylan squeals, “How does it feel,” it’s as if he’s speaking for Dobie, who continues his miserable cycle before the story wraps up. –Michael Roffman

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08. “Wigwam”

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

Despite what our exhaustive ranking suggests, Gene Hackman’s Royal Tenenbaum is Wes Anderson’s greatest character. He’s a lovable bastard, whose predilection towards laissez-faire relationships warrants some of the most blunt dialogue the veteran actor has ever delivered. “I’m sorry for your loss,” he tells his grandchildren upon first meeting them. “Your mother was a terribly attractive woman.” It would all sound evil and demeaning if there wasn’t such an aura of class to his demeanor. Much of that class, however, draws from Anderson’s vintage pastiches that all suggest this is a world of sophistication, where people are smart enough to understand the context of any conversation or situation. This is why a guy like Royal can exist and get away with being such a son of a bitch to everyone around him. Yet part of that world-building relies on the music, and Dylan’s brassy “Wigwam” adds a layer of poignancy to this initial meet-up with the horns embellishing the characters’ quirks and the “la la” harmonies suggesting it’s “a most satisfactory” moment. But enough of this, let’s shag ass. –Michael Roffman

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07. “The Times They Are a-Changin'”

Watchmen (2009)

Great songs touch upon some truth, and that’s why they remain timeless. No matter how politics, technology, or our society evolve, some ideas prove eternal for us. Bob Dylan set out to create an anthem of change for his generation, and “The Times They Are a-Changin’” became much more than that. Not only do its general lyrics make it a timeless call to action, but it also speaks to ideas of innate justice and the need for each generation to understand both its purpose and its duty to step down once that purpose has been served. Whether or not you approve of Zack Snyder’s silver-screen adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ iconic Watchmen mid-‘80s comic-book series, the combination of Dylan’s anthem and the film’s opening images showing how an alternative history led to a particularly terrifying state of world affairs can’t help but “shake your windows and rattle your walls.” –Matt Melis  

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06. “Shelter from the Storm”

Jerry Maguire (1996)

Jerry Maguire had to end with “Shelter from the Storm”. There was just no other way. For over two hours, Cameron Crowe runs Tom Cruise’s titular sports agent through the ringer: He loses 98% of his clients, he loses his wife, he loses his reputation, and he loses his mind. But he never loses hope, and that hope is what drives him away from the storm of his past and into the shelter of a new life, one where his clients are family (Cuba Gooding, Jr.’s Rod Tidwell) and his loved one (Renée Zellweger’s Dorothy Boyd) is his quan. Of course, it’s all a little more complicated than that, but that’s essentially the gist of Crowe’s romantic comedy-drama sports film, and if you can’t see the parallels between the story and Dylan’s iconic tune, well, then look no further than its opening stanza: “‘Twas in another lifetime, one of toil and blood/ When blackness was a virtue, the road was full of mud/ I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form/ ‘Come in,’ she said/ ‘I’ll give ya shelter from the storm.'” It’s as if the film was born out of the song, which would be fitting coming from the former Rolling Stone journalist. –Michael Roffman

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05. “The Man in Me”

The Big Lebowski (1998)

Every now and then a film pulls a forgotten song out of obscurity and shines a gaudy neon light on it. Has there ever been a more clear-cut case of this than “The Man in Me” rolling 10 frames during the opening credits of the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski. Think of how many people had totally forgotten that song or were shocked to discover that was Dylan singing. Think of how many probably downloaded it or even checked out New Morning, an underrated album that started the slow chug towards Blood on the Tracks. Whether it’s the garish production, backing singers, or Dylan’s rough lounge delivery, something about the song dials the clock back to a time when neon lights made bowling alleys amusement parks for adults, polyester was fashionable, and the décor shared a hue with the goopy nacho cheese at the snacketeria. Consider those opening credits a long overdue music video for “The Man in Me” because those scratchy la la las will forever be playing from the speakers of that bowling alley. Let’s face it: They really tie those lanes together. Am I right?  –Matt Melis

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04. “Hurricane”

Dazed and Confused (1993)

Some songs just need to be cool. For Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused, cool comes early with a little Aerosmith, but the film peaks later down the road when Pink (Jason London) and Wooderson (Matthew McConaughey) step into the Emporium to the sounds of Dylan’s “Hurricane”. Now, it’s hard to define a point of view in the film, and it really depends on your age as you watch it over the years, but there’s no keener vantage point than Mitch’s (Wiley Wiggins), whose first-hand experience in the pool hall matches our own. The driving acoustics and strings behind Dylan’s barn burner sets the mood accordingly, suggesting that this is the upper echelon of teenage society, and that you should also feel cool and special for being there. The smoke and low lightning only cement that feeling, and as Dylan rages on and on, you slowly get acclimated to this mythical world, where the coolest walks of life get their jollies off either through drinking, schmoozing, or shooting pool. It’s a masterful scene that Linklater commands with ease — probably because he’s drawing from memory — and remains one of the best entrances committed to celluloid. Check ya later, Scorsese. –Michael Roffman

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03. “Most of the Time”

High Fidelity (2000)

Like Alvy Singer before him, Rob Gordon sabotages every relationship he’s in because he never learns to recognize a good thing when he has it. For Rob, the grass is always greener, the records minter, and the lingerie sexier in someone else’s life. However, the ultimate difference between Woody Allen’s Singer and John Cusack’s Gordon comes down to the latter hitting rock bottom and finally understanding that he’s the one dooming his relationships by never committing. And as he sits on a bus bench in the pouring rain, breaking the fourth wall to tell us all about it, Dylan’s late ‘80s ballad “Most of the Time” drifts in like a storm cloud passing overhead. In most song-film pairings, Dylan’s music sets a tone, creates a mood, or locates a story in a time and place, but here his lyrics could be Rob’s own thoughts, desperately trying to convince himself that Laura isn’t the answer. Problem is, nobody, neither Dylan nor Rob, is buying it. –Matt Melis

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02. “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”

Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973)

A dusty trail diverged in the Old West, and old friends Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid chose different paths. Garrett (James Coburn) settled on a quiet retirement as a lawman for the politicians and cattle ranchers fixed on taming and consolidating the Wild West, and Billy (Kris Kristofferson) opted to remain reckless and free, making it impossible for Garrett to ride peacefully into the sunset. Dylan, of course, contributed an entire soundtrack to Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, but it’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”, an international hit, that both Dylan fans and cinephiles recall best. The song can be considered a death coda of sorts but actually acts more as a musical trail of deeds leading to one final showdown, a struggle that turns out to not really be between Garrett and Billy at all. Can Garrett live with being the one to pull the trigger on an old friend? It’s fitting that gospel harmonies bookend Dylan’s song, because it feels like nothing less than Garrett’s soul hangs in the balance as he sits outside Billy’s hotel room and waits. –Matt Melis

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01. “Things Have Changed”

Wonder Boys (2000)

It helps when Bobby D actually writes a song for your film. Such was the case for the late Curtis Hanson, whose 2000 adaptation of Michael Chabon’s exceptional novel, Wonder Boys, received a bump from the bard. As Hanson explained, “I learned that Dylan might be interested in contributing an original song … So when I came back from filming in Pittsburgh, Bob came by the editing room to see some rough-cut footage. I told him the story and introduced him to the characters. We talked about Grady Tripp and where he was in life, emotionally and creatively. Weeks later a CD arrived in the mail.” Given that Dylan is one of the strongest storytellers to ever write music, it’s not at all surprising that he was able to get under the skin of Chabon’s midlife-crisis novel and capture the feeling of the movie in a little under five minutes.

What’s shocking then is how “Things Have Changed” wound up being one of his strongest and most earnest compositions to date. It’s almost as if he found a little of himself in the troubled professor, Grady Tripp — and that’s not exactly a stretch. When the track won Best Original Song at the 73rd Academy Awards, Dylan, who performed the song via satellite (he was touring Australia at the time), announced: “I want to thank the members of the Academy who were bold enough to give me this award for this song, which obviously is a song that doesn’t pussyfoot around nor turn a blind eye to human nature.” Those are some choice words by a choice man, though, unlike Tripp, Dylan never needs rescuing. To paraphrase Tripp, he’s a junkie for the sung word, and lucky for him, he manufactures his drug of choice. –Michael Roffman

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