Timothee Chalamet will reportedly be the next actor to portray Bob Dylan, in a new movie directed by James Mangold. And, stop me if you've heard this one before, that movie "will follow Dylan as he rises in fame on his way to become a folk music icon." Even if you aren't a Dylan fan, you are likely a little familiar with his story by now, in part due to the number of movies and documentaries that have already been made about him.
Sure, all right, Dylan is certainly worthy of a movie or even three movies (I am a fan, he's a legend!), but don't we have enough at this point? Google has even lost track:
Born Robert Allen Zimmerman in 1940s Minnesota, Our Folk Hero made his way to New York City in 1961 with an acoustic guitar on his back and played clubs around Greenwich Village. You can picture him, a raggedy genius hunched over a notepad at Caffe Reggio, a cigarette in his hand, a brunette with a Mona Lisa smile perennially by his side. And then in the mid-'60s he plugged in his guitar, everyone freaked out, and time seemed to stop as a declaration to how important this single moment was. Decades later the mysterious, elusive, grumpy ol' Dylan still won't get off the bus. So the story goes, again and again and again.
But can you even tell me off the top of your head where Joni Mitchell is from? When I asked co-workers, three out of three knew Dylan was from Minnesota, but their answers for Mitchell ranged from New Jersey to California. She's from Canada, which is something that may be more universally known if she had even one documentary or feature film made about her. (Sure, Mitchell turned down one movie with Taylor Swift proposed to play her, and maybe even more, but you better believe Dylan turned down movies too. If he hadn't, we'd have an entire Dylan streaming network right now called Dylan+.)
After watching Martin Scorsese's Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story last year (part of the above clip is in it), I was struck by the number of great female musicians who turned up as background players—legendary women, who were reduced to fleeting clips that, interestingly enough, kind of showcased how much more compelling they were than the men around them. Why aren’t there feature films or docs on the other women in this folk rock scene—they always get lumped in to group docs or sidelined in male docs. Read any interview with Joan Baez and tell me you don't want an entire Ken Burns docuseries on her!
Maybe if men didn’t direct the narrative and dominate the voice of major publications for so many decades (and still), then Dylan would not be the god-like figure he is to many. Maybe some women would have been equally uplifted and we'd know their stories as well as we know his. Maybe, at least, this man would know how to spell Joni's last name?
Of course, it's not just the folk scene—there aren't big budget films on many deserving women in the music industry. Just pick any female musician, there definitely isn't a Scorsese doc about her, there probably isn't even a doc that landed in theaters for more than a day about her, and there's not a feature film about her life starring A-list talent.
But you will find a handful of solid documentaries, at least: Twenty Feet From Stardom, Janis: Little Girl Blue, Amazing Grace, Whitney, What Happened, Miss Simone?, Linda Ronstadt: The Sound Of My Voice, and the excellent Punk Singer are a good start. (Update: Since this story was originally published in January 2020, a feature film about Billie Holiday was released.)
And you know what, I would take one more Dylan doc, too, but only if its sole focus were on his Christmas lights in Malibu. Meanwhile, my colleague Ben Yakas, a Dylan aficionado, would like a film about his 1980s years:
"As historically important as the 1965 Newport Folk Festival moment was—it was the death knell for the popular folk movement, and symbolically opened the doors to the electric guitar experimentation that dominated popular culture for the following years—it's one of the most well-documented Dylan periods. When will we get a movie about late '80s Dylan, completely out of touch with his muse, riding his motorcycle in New Orleans trying to get his mojo back?!"
Probably next year, Ben. I'm thinking the Safdies and Sandler for this one.