Bob Dylan turned 76 on Wedneddsay, so we’re ranking Dylan’s 10 best film performances, dating back half a century to 1967. The key word is “performances,” which encompass acting work, concert films, and documentaries. It’s often hard to know when Dylan is acting and when he’s being himself (whoever that is), but whenever the iconic singer-songwriter appears on film, one thing’s for certain: you’re watching a performance.
For this reason, we’re lumping everything together, ranking the films based on the depth and richness of performance. It was hard not to include the televised 1965 press conference in San Francisco, which sees Dylan effortlessly (and hilariously) shoot down reporters’ attempts to have him label himself, but we limited this list to feature-length films. Don’t look for Todd Haynes’ “I’m Not There” or any other movie where someone else plays the folk hero — this is a Dylan-only list. Happy birthday, Bob.
10. “Hearts of Fire” (1987)
The last film from “Return of the Jedi” director Richard Marquand, “Hearts of Fire” sees Dylan typecast as a former rock star turned reclusive musician named Billy Parker who takes a young female singer under his wing. Though the movie itself is utterly forgettable and feels as misguided as anything might from the ’80s, Dylan’s assured performance in a substantial role is what makes the film worth it. At the very least, it’s the only movie where you’ll see Dylan slugging a British pop star (played by Rupert Everett) and throwing a television out of a window.
9. “Masked and Anonymous” (2003)
Sony Pictures Classics
The debut feature film from Larry Charles, who would go on to direct Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Borat,” “Brüno,” and “The Dictator,” “Masked and Anonymous” stars Dylan as Jack Fate, a forgotten singer forced to make a comeback for a benefit concert. A scattershot enigma of a movie, it’s another misfire built around Dylan’s musical body of work, but it’s the only film of the 21st century featuring Dylan in an acting role — and almost certainly his last. The improbably large ensemble cast, most of whom undoubtedly jumped at the opportunity to be in a Bob Dylan movie, includes Penelope Cruz, Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Jessica Lange, Luke Wilson, Angela Bassett, Bruce Dern, Ed Harris, Val Kilmer, Giovanni Ribisi, Cheech Marin, Chris Penn, Mickey Rourke, and Christian Slater.
8. “Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid” (1973)
Sam Peckinpah’s biographical Western marked Dylan’s first dramatic role, playing an associate of the gunfighter Billy the Kid. It’s a small part, but Dylan’s restless, mysterious Alias still manages to steal attention away from stars like James Coburn and Kris Kristofferson. The project also marked Dylan’s first soundtrack album.
7. “Renaldo and Clara” (1978)
Dylan’s only narrative feature film as a director, “Renaldo and Clara” combines dramatic acting with documentary and live concert footage. Dylan plays the musician Renaldo alongside his then-wife Sara Dylan as Clara. The most fascinating aspect of Dylan’s performance is how you never really know much is acting, versus role-playing, versus simply traipsing around in front of a camera. It’s also the only documentation of Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue tour. The film features appearances and performances from T-Bone Burnett, Jack Elliott, Allen Ginsberg, Arlo Guthrie, and Joni Mitchell.
6. “Eat the Document” (1972)
Originally commissioned by ABC Television, “Eat the Document” follows Dylan and his backup band the Hawks’ 1966 U.K. tour, famous for combining acoustic music and loud, electric rock n’ roll that turned many of Dylan’s most loyal fans into his sharpest critics. The film was shot by D.A. Pennebaker, whose first cut was rejected by Dylan. The singer then edited the movie himself into a jarringly non-linear doc that comes across as an almost experimental collage of film clips. ABC refused to air the project, and Dylan allegedly coughed up hundreds of thousands of dollars to retain the rights and prevent it from being released. Where the film succeeds is in capturing Dylan’s restless spirit of constant evolution and penchant for confronting those who want to define him. “Eat the Document” serves as a rude awakening for anyone clinging to Dylan’s gentle, folk singer-poet persona.
5. “The Concert for Bangladesh” (1972)
20th Century Fox
George Harrison didn’t know if Dylan would actually show up to play two concerts at Madison Square Garden that Harrison organized to benefit East Pakistani refugees, but Dylan’s last-minute arrival ended up being the event’s crowning achievement. He played five of his most popular songs, sung in a style and voice no one had ever heard before, all while wearing a unassuming denim jacket. It was a new Dylan that somehow also felt like the Dylan of old, singing for a cause. The simple fact that he took the same stage as two Beatles — Harrison and Ringo Starr — was enough to give the audience, and by extension viewers, goosebumps.
4. “The Last Waltz” (1978)
Martin Scorsese’s concert doc of The Band’s send-off performance contains just three songs from Dylan, but this epic rockumentary saves the best for last. Dylan’s version of “Forever Young” kicks of his mini-set, a performance that stands out from any he’s given before or since. Dylan has the holy spirit running through him for both “Baby Let Me Follow You Down” and the climactic “I Shall Be Released,” sung with a throng of legendary musicians including Neil Young, Eric Clapton, Emmylou Harris, Joni Mitchell, Neil Diamond, Ronnie Wood, and Van Morrison. Shot in beautiful, cinematic 35 mm, Dylan’s portion of “The Last Waltz” is a performance to be treasured.
3. “The Other Side of the Mirror: Bob Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival” (2007)
Filmmaker Murray Lerner shot footage of Dylan at three separate Newport Folk Festivals between 1963 and 1965, but Lerner didn’t release the film as a complete package until 2007. The resulting documentary shows the scruffy, protest song-singing Dylan transform into the folk-rock icon over the course of just the three summers, culminating in the infamous 1965 performance of “Maggie’s Farm,” the first electric guitar ever played at Newport, and an event that changed the history of music forever. As Dylan belts out “Maggie’s Farm” and “Like a Rolling Stone,” singing over the sound of the booing crowd who considered Newport a sacred, acoustic-only festival, you can sense him abandoning a large group of his audience to start a new chapter of his career. Though he would end the show with an acoustic song, he chose a title that undoubtedly left many of his fans heartbroken: “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue.”
2. “No Direction Home: Bob Dylan” (2005)
Paramount Home Video
Martin Scorsese’s three-and-a-half hour documentary “No Direction Home” is the most comprehensive film ever made about Dylan, capturing everything from his teenage musical ambitions all the way through his eight-year break from touring that lasted until 1974, and featuring rare on-camera interviews with Dylan himself. The film borrows archival footage from several other documentaries and charts the course of popular music beyond Dylan, and in the end delivers a thorough account of Dylan’s creative genius by delving into the major turning points of his career.
1. “Dont Look Back” (1967)
The first Dylan movie is still the best. When the singer’s longtime manager Albert Grossman asked documentary filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker to join what would be Dylan’s final acoustic tour, in England in 1965, Pennebaker figured he was being hired to shoot promotional concert footage. With no studio executive telling him what to do, however, Pennebaker had free reign to shoot whatever and whenever he wanted, ultimately coming away with the most fascinating fly-on-the-wall accounting of the singer ever captured on film. (There were even enough outtakes to cut together a separate, special feature doc, the 65-minute “’65 Revisited.”)
Shot on beautifully grainy black and white, “Dont Look Back” has its fair share of concert footage, but focuses more on late nights in Dylan’s hotel room, sparring interviews with the press, and backstage nervousness. His complicated relationship with his former romantic partner and fellow folk-music hero Joan Baez is on full display, as is his introduction to rival folk singer Donovan. Though Dylan had toured the U.K. twice before, his third visit was his first experience getting mobbed by fans, who jump on his car, wait outside his hotel and doggedly follow him at every turn. “I feel like I’ve been through some kind of thing,” Dylan says in the taxi after his final performance. “There’s something special about it.” We couldn’t agree more.