There’s been a story promulgating itself out there for a few days now about how a production company has been granted license to make a film based in some way around Bob Dylan’s 1974 album Blood on the Tracks. The quote from an executive is: “Our goal is to work with a filmmaker who can create a classic drama with characters and an environment that capture the feelings that this album inspires in all its fans.” Well, that’s ambitious. A better goal might be just to make a good film, rather than trying to duplicate the feelings that the album inspires in fans, considering that each fan no doubt has somewhat different feelings when listening to the songs and performances on the record. My personal instinct would be to avoid seeing such a film anyway, since Blood on the Tracks has its own resonances for me—as I’m sure for most other listeners—and I just wouldn’t be interested in replacing those in any way with images and characterizations in someone else’s movie. But que sera, sera. As with so many things, it may never even come to pass. As Harold Lepidus observes, there’s actually a history of other screen ideas associated one way or another with Blood on the Tracks.
It’s pretty clear that Bob Dylan and his “camp” are very generous indeed when it comes to granting rights to people to pursue their own projects which utilize his songs. I don’t know how often they refuse requests; it almost seems like they never do. It appears to be done in the spirit of: “Let them throw everything they have against the wall and see what sticks.” A lot of it just doesn’t. Dylan famously granted director Todd Haynes license to use everything in his unusual biopic “I’m Not There,” featuring numerous actors of various ages and genders portraying some kind of “Bob Dylan.” Did it stick to the wall? Maybe somebody’s wall, but, I would suggest, Bob Dylan’s own wall is pretty clean of any vestiges of this movie. The film is so out there that it can only be seen as Todd Haynes’ personal riffing on various aspects of the Dylan story/legend and it actually doesn’t lay a glove on Dylan himself. The title, “I’m Not There,” is indeed incredibly apropros.
Yet, every time that someone devotes their creative energies to doing something associated with “Bob Dylan” it only increases the size of his legend in the public consciousness, and inevitably draws more people into checking out his music, which is, in the end, the real point. As it should be.
What makes “Blood on the Tracks” stand out is Dylan’s ability to paint a picture of his life during the early 1970s. His marriage to his wife Sara, whom he had married in 1965, was slipping away and he was left feeling a mixture of anger, defiance, desperation, bitterness, sadness and regret. All of these feelings are revealed in the songs.
I know that in the shorthand of Dylan mythology Blood on the Tracks has long been known as his “break up with Sara” album, but it’s very far from how I think of it—even more so when I’m listening to it in 2012—and it’s frankly humorous to see it described as a “picture of his life during the early 1970s.” I mean, “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts?” Or “Simple Twist of Fate?” How hard would you have to try to pull factual and mundane kinds of biographical data from these songs? No doubt his emotional and spiritual life at the time played a role in what came out in the songs, as it always must, but there is no single narrative of a single relationship being told in a literal way in those songs. (At least one song, I think, i.e. “Shelter from the Storm,” is likely not even about a human relationship.) You can, if you like, connect certain lines of certain songs to certain things that are said to be part of Dylan’s private life, but the songs are in general well beyond that level—and indeed the album would a failure if it were not so. Any film trying to piece these songs into a narrative would have to confront this problem as “job one.” You would find it easier to use them as a soundtrack to all of human history than to squeeze them into the story of a single man/woman relationship.
And that’s as far as I’m going to go in giving free advice to the script writers.