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A Decalogue of the Dopest Movie References in Dylan

In honor of Bob Dylan’s birthday on Friday, this year’s movie-related Dylan birthday post is the inverse of last year’s list of the best Dylan references in movies; I’d now like to highlight some of the most memorable movie references in the work of Bob Dylan (whether in song lyrics, poems or Dylan’s own films). Happy 72nd, Bob!

10. The appropriation of a joke from the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera in the song “Po’ Boy”

night

In spite of its fame, true Marx brothers fans know that A Night at the Opera (1935), along with all the other films the brothers made at MGM, is inferior to the anarchic, truly batshit-crazy slapstick movies they had made earlier at Paramount (e.g., Duck Soup, Animal Crackers, Horse Feathers, etc.). The problem is that, while the brothers were always the star of the show in their Paramount films, they tended to be shunted to the side in their MGM vehicles, while some wooden young romantic leads took center stage. Still, A Night at the Opera has its share of zingers. One of the best comes when Groucho calls room service to ask, “Room service? Send up a larger room.” This joke found its way into a couplet on the wryly funny “Po’ Boy,” one of the best cuts on Dylan’s celebrated “Love and Theft” album (2001):

“Po’ boy, in a hotel called the Palace of Gloom
Calls down to room service, says, ‘Send up a room'”

Of course, almost as funny as the room service joke itself is the notion that a hotel would be named the “Palace of Gloom.”

9. The homage to Francois Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player in the poem “11 Outlined Epitaphs”

shoot

“there’s a movie called
Shoot the Piano Player
the last line proclaimin’
‘music, man, that’s where it’s at’
it is a religious line
outside, the chimes rung
an’ they
are still ringin'”

So ends “11 Outlined Epitaphs,” the long poetic liner notes Dylan wrote for his legendary 1963 album The Times They Are A-Changin’. Truffaut’s seminal French New Wave movie Shoot the Piano Player (1960) doesn’t end with anyone literally saying that music is “where it’s at” but that is the general impression of the scene: after the lead character, played by Charles Aznavour (long one of Dylan’s favorite singers), loses his girlfriend in a tragic shootout with gangsters, he simply returns to playing the piano — the thing he knows how to do best (and a sentiment with which the ever-touring Dylan can probably relate). Dylan seems to have been influenced by watching many foreign-language — especially French — films in Greenwich Village arthouse theaters early in his career. He would speak of being influenced by Truffaut and Godard in interviews for years to come.

8. The description of seeing Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita in the memoir Chronicles: Volume One

ladolcevita

Bob Dylan first arrived in New York City in January 1961. Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960) opened in New York only three months later and seems to have made a particularly strong impression on the young folk singer. Dylan name-checked Anita Ekberg, one of the film’s stars, in I Shall Be Free, the last track on his 1963 album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, and referenced the film’s title in the song “Motorpsycho Nitemare” one year later (see entry number two on this list). When Dylan met the German singer Nico a year after that, he claimed to remember her from her bit part in the film (when she was known by her birth name, Christa Paffgen). In his intentionally — and hilariously — inaccurate 2003 memoir Chronicles Volume One, Dylan used vivid language to describe seeing Fellini’s movie for the first time:

“There was an art movie house in the Village on 12th Street that showed foreign movies — French, Italian, German. This made sense, because even Alan Lomax himself, the great folk archivist, had said somewhere that if you want to get out of America, go to Greenwich Village. I’d seen a couple of Italian Fellini movies there — one called La Strada, which means “the Street,” and another one called La Dolce Vita. It was about a guy who sells his soul and becomes a gossip hound. It looked like life in a carnival mirror.”

Dylan then intriguingly adds that he watched La Dolce Vita “intently,” unsure of whether he would ever have the chance to see it again. “Life in a carnival mirror” is exactly how many have described Dylan’s best lyrics from the 1960s.

7. The use of D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance as an “opening act” in 2010.

intolerance

Dylan puzzled many longtime fans in 2010 when the early shows of his fall tour began with the opening 30 minutes of D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Through the Ages (1916) being screened via digital projection. In a neat coincidence, some of the theaters Dylan was playing were old movie palaces that had originally shown Intolerance some 80-odd years earlier. What kind of message was Dylan trying to send? Some commentators speculated he was comparing 21st century America to the decadent, ancient Babylon depicted in Griffith’s film. Whatever the case, Dylan, as usual, kept mum. Midway through the tour, the projection of Intolerance stopped just as mysteriously as it had begun.

6. The appropriation of dialogue from Clint Eastwood’s Bronco Billy in the song Seeing the Real You at Last

bronco

Dylan has long used movie dialogue — along with lyrics from folk songs, stray lines from other works of literature, etc. — as a source for his song lyrics. In the mid-1980s especially, he was apparently spending a lot of time with classic Hollywood films on VHS, the dialogue of which found its way verbatim into his songs. This list could have been much, much longer if I had wanted to point out film dialogue appropriated solely for the 1985 album Empire Burlesque. Instead, I’ll settle for highlighting a single line from Clint Eastwood’s highly personal 1980 comedy Bronco Billy that turned up in the song “Seeing the Real You at Last.” At one point in the movie, Eastwood’s title character, a Wild West show impresario, says, “I’m looking for a woman who can ride like Annie Oakley and shoot like Belle Starr.”

The verse in “Seeing the Real You at Last” goes:

“When I met you, baby,
You didn’t show no visible scars,
You could ride like Annie Oakley,
You could shoot like Belle Starr.”

Incidentally, the “no visible scars” line is a quote from Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944). Almost every line in the song has been traced back to one film or another.

5. The homage to Nicholas Ray’s The Savage Innocents in the song “Quinn the Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn)”

savage

One of the unlikeliest hits of Dylan’s career is the drunken sing-along/nonsense song “Quinn the Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn),” which originated as one of many such songs he spontaneously wrote and recorded with The Band in the legendary 1967 sessions that would form the basis of The Basement Tapes. Although nothing in the song’s lyrics corresponds very closely to anything that happens in Nicholas Ray’s underrated 1959 drama, it is generally assumed that the title is a reference to the protagonist of The Savage Innocents, an Inuit man played by actor Anthony Quinn. The song title itself would inspire yet another movie — the 1989 Jamaica-set thriller The Mighty Quinn, starring Denzel Washington as a detective.

4. The influence of Marcel Carne’s Children of Paradise on the entire Rolling Thunder Revue-era

children

Along with La Dolce Vita and Shoot the Piano Player, another film that can be said to have had a major impact on Dylan’s career is Marcel Carne’s 1945 masterpiece Children of Paradise (Les Enfants du Paradis). It isn’t known exactly when Dylan first saw this tale of doomed love set in the world of 19th century Parisian theater but a revival screening at a Greenwich Village art house (with Suze Rotolo?) seems likely. At one point in the movie, the female lead, Garance, says, “You go your way and I’ll go mine,” which would form most of the title of a well-known song from Dylan’s 1966 album Blonde on Blonde. But Dylan clearly must have watched it again at some point in the early to mid-1970s because the film’s biggest influence was on the recorded music, live performances and film work Dylan was involved in from 1975 – 1978. Dylan’s bittersweet love song “You’re a Big Girl Now” from 1975 features the line “Love is so simple / to quote a phrase.” The phrase being quoted is a line from Children of Paradise, spoken by Garance twice during the movie. Dylan’s live appearances on the Rolling Thunder Revue tours of 1975/1976 saw him wearing “white face” make-up in what is widely regarded as an homage to Baptiste, the mime protagonist of Carne’s film. And Dylan’s own 1978 movie Renaldo and Clara, a fascinating four-hour experimental epic shot during the 1975 tour that mixes live performances with improvised fictional scenes, has several elements clearly inspired by Children of Paradise. In an interview to promote Renaldo and Clara, Dylan even cited the Carne film as the only one he knew of that could “stop time.”

3. The appearance of Leonardo DiCaprio’s Titanic character in the song “Tempest”

titanic

Many Dylan fans were surprised when it was revealed in early 2012 that his forthcoming album, Tempest, would contain a 14-minute epic about the sinking of the Titanic. Even more surprising was when word leaked out that the title song included references to Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, Jack Dawson, who, in typically perverse Dylan fashion, is referred to by the actor’s name rather than the character’s name:

“Leo took his sketchbook
He was often so inclined
He closed his eyes and painted
The scenery in his mind”

Dylan fans are split on the song’s worth. Some find it overlong and monotonous while others have claimed it is one of the bard’s most extraordinary compositions. Dylan himself acknowledged the reference to DiCaprio in an interview with Rolling Stone: “Yeah, Leo. I don’t think the song would be the same without him. Or the movie.” What Dylan doesn’t say is that he was essentially repaying a compliment: DiCaprio’s character anachronistically quoted Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone in a line of dialogue in Titanic: “When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose.”

2. The parody of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho in the story-song “Motorpsycho Nightmare”

psycho

Some of the funniest lyrics Dylan ever penned can be found in the story-song “Motorpsycho Nightmare” from 1964. The song essentially mashes-up the plot of Hitchcock’s proto-slasher film with the old joke about the traveling salesman and the farmer’s daughter. In the Dylan tune, a farmer grants the narrator a place to sleep for the night under the condition that he doesn’t touch the farmer’s daughter and in the morning milks a cow. In the middle of the night, the farmer’s daughter, who looks “just like Tony Perkins” (a line that rhymes, hilariously, with “I was sleepin’ like a rat / When I heard something jerkin'”), wakes up the narrator and implores him to take a shower. This leads to a slapstick fight between the narrator and the farmer, from which the narrator is lucky to escape alive. The song ends with the farmer’s daughter moving away and getting “a job in a motel” and the narrator thanking his lucky stars that he’s not “in the swamp” (the fate of Janet Leigh’s character in Psycho).

1. Myriad eferences to Henry King’s The Gunfighter in the song “Brownsville Girl”

gunfighter

One of Dylan’s very best songs is the 1986 mock-heroic epic “Brownsville Girl,” written in collaboration with playwright Sam Shepard (who was also, once upon a time, implored by Dylan to watch Children of Paradise and Shoot the Piano Player when he was hired to write scenes for Renaldo and Clara). The song begins with the line “Well, there was this movie I seen one time / About a man riding ‘cross the desert and it starred Gregory Peck.” The song’s narrator tells the story of an ill-fated love affair with the title character that plays out in various locations across the state of Texas but he continually interrupts this narrative with reminiscences of seeing Henry King’s 1950 western The Gunfighter. The film indeed stars Peck as Jimmy Ringo, a famous gunfighter who is shot in the back by a “hungry kid trying to make a name for himself.” Ringo, on his deathbed, lies to the local sheriff, saying that it was he (Ringo) who drew first; his rationale is that he wants the kid to know what it feels like to have gunfighters out to get him. Dylan and Shepard get a lot of comic mileage out of having their narrator, who appears to be something of a coward (“I didn’t know whether to duck or to run, so I ran”), identify with Peck’s noble outlaw. When Dylan became a Kennedy Center Honoree in 1997, the award was presented by none other than Gregory Peck who, amusingly, made reference to the song:

For more fun with Dylan lyrics and film dialogue, check out this great site: http://dylanfilm.atspace.com/

Dylan fans should feel free to post their own favorite Dylan movie references in the comments section below.

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About michaelgloversmith

Filmmaker, author and Film Studies instructor. View all posts by michaelgloversmith

18 responses to “A Decalogue of the Dopest Movie References in Dylan

  • jilliemae

    Great post! Not only is the Titanic song wonderful, but the Leo reference is a delightful surprise when you first hear it.

  • Martin Kelly

    “One of the unlikeliest hits of Dylan’s career is the drunken sing-along/nonsense song “Quinn the Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn),”

    And just as unlikely is the way it also entered British soccer culture. There were a number of players in the English football league called Quinn, and whenever they scored, the crowd would erupt into “You ain’t seen nothing like the Mighty Quinn”

    • michaelgloversmith

      Martin, thanks for sharing. I had never heard that before but that’s amazing. That kind of surprising re-appropriation reminds me of how people sing the riff of The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” (of all things!) at soccer matches today.

  • Dwigt

    Dylan’s fascination for Shoot The Piano Player comes reportedly from the climax of the film, that takes place in a snowy place. He claims he loved that because it reminded him of the winters in his native Minnesota. That’s why he became interested in Aznavour and was, according to his own words, the first in line at the box office when the tickets went on sale for the first ever Aznavour concert in New York.
    In an earlier interview, Dylan claimed instead that a French friend brought him to an Aznavour performance in Carnegie Hall and it made him a fan for life.

    • michaelgloversmith

      That’s right! I remember reading Dylan saying somewhere that the snowbound climax of SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER reminded him of Minnesota. Do you happen to remember where that quote is from? An interview perhaps?

      SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER opened in NYC in the summer of ’62, the year before Aznavour’s famous Carnegie Hall performance so I believe the story that has Dylan seeing the movie first, which sparked his interest in seeing the concert — although the truth could be some combination of the two stories.

      • sammybijaoui

        It comes from a 1997 interview about the release of Time Out of Mind, with Serge Kaganski, film editor of the French music magazine Les Inrockuptibles (or it may be a joint interview with several members of the foreign press, Dylan did this for “Love and Theft”).

        http://www.lesinrocks.com/1997/10/15/musique/bob-dylan-dylan-on-dylan-11231958/

        The interview was later expanded and transcribed in its original English for Mojo (issue 51, February 98).

        Q: You once said you loved Charles Aznavour.
        A: I do. Very much so. I became aware of him in 1962. I actually saw him perform in New York because I’d seen a movie he was in called Shoot The Piano Player. I saw that movie a bunch of times because the snow part of it reminded me of back where I came from.
        Q: It was François Truffaut’s least successful movie, I think.
        A: Well, everything about that movie I identified with. Everything. So, Charles Aznavour came to New York to play – and I was the first in line for a ticket!

  • Steve

    Terrific, fun-filled article Michael.
    Just like to point out one thing regarding the ‘Leo’ from Tempest. There was apparently a ‘Leo Zimmerman’ on the passenger list aboard the Titanic.
    I’ve always enjoyed the thought Dylan was (as usual) cheekily referring to some long-lost relative, or indeed some other Leo – while everyone got all-a-flutter over the presence of ‘Leo’ DiCaprio in his song.

  • Stillman

    Interesting and enjoyable article, Michael. (Though it apparently had little or no influence on Dylan and would be beyond the scope of your article, the David Goodis novel “Down There” was the source for the Truffaut film “Shoot The Piano Player.” Every character and plot aspect of the film, and the snowy farmhouse shootout, can be found in this excellent novel. The film was also good, but the novel with its interior monologues has a psychological intensity that only partially transfers to the visual medium.)

    • michaelgloversmith

      Thanks for the comment. I’ve read DOWN THERE (I’ve got the Black Lizard edition that was reprinted under the title of Truffaut’s movie), which I love. While Truffaut did take the characters, story and setting all from Goodis, I also think he injected the project with a lot of his own personality, including movie references and a goofy sense of humor that is entirely absent in the novel.

    • michaelgloversmith

      Incidentally, are you the same Stillman who gave me a ride to a Dylan show in the suburbs of Chicago in the fall of 2006? If so, nice to meet up with you again in cyberspace!

      • Stillman

        Yes, I am, and it’s good to cross paths with you again. I’ll be reading this blog regularly.

  • Scott Pfeiffer

    What an exciting article about two of my all-time favorite subjects, Bob Dylan and the movies. And not just any movies, but pictures referenced by Dylan, including some of the ones that turn me on the most in all of film history (“Shoot the Piano Player,” “La Dolce Vita,” “Psycho,” etc.).

    If I may take the liberty, I thought I’d share with you a couple of my own efforts to talk about the conjoining of the universe of Dylan and cinema-land. I hope the pieces are interesting or relevant in some way.

    I tried to talk about it in my review of “I’m Not There”:
    http://dreamsandvisions.squarespace.com/old-reviews/2011/6/27/im-not-there.html

    Your article also made me think of a piece I wrote about the “Movies and Movies” class I took from the “Filmspotting” guys back in the summer of 2011 (I write from Chicago as well). (As a complement to our screening of “8 1/2”, the teachers showed a clip from “I’m Not There.”)

    http://dreamsandvisions.squarespace.com/journal/2011/8/29/movies-about-movies-class-part-iii-the-director-cinema-is-ki.html

    Thanks again for the piece. We have similar enthusiasms.

    • michaelgloversmith

      Thanks for the links to those fine pieces. Your blog is terrific. After rooting around there for a bit, I realize we not only have similar enthusiasms, we’ve also been leading somewhat parallel lives: I too discovered Dylan as a kid in the 1980s (I’m from N. Carolina originally) and also moved to Chicago in 1993. I have no doubt we’ll run into each other at either a movie or a Dylan show in the future.

  • Mel Kinder

    Great article! I would like to reinforce the movie “La Strata” had on Dylan.
    I had seen this film three times before 1958 (I was a projectionist ). In
    1968 I walked out of the Nuart theater in W. LA and realized that this movie was at the “core” of many of Dylan’s thoughts. My friends derided
    my obsession with Dylan. Three months later Nat Hentoff’s “interview” appeared in the “New Yorker”. The last question asked was “If you could be anyone in the world , who would it be? Dylan replayed “Stanfano”
    This is a very existential concept. Well worth thinking about. Mel Kinder, Santa Cruz, Ca

    • michaelgloversmith

      Thanks for the kind words, Mel. I know what you mean about LA STRADA and I agree with you. I seem to remember reading an interview with Dylan where he remarked that some of the imagery in “Mr. Tambourine Man” was specifically influenced by Fellini’s film but I couldn’t find the quote when I was compiling this list.

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