Bob Dylan’s ‘Blood on the Tracks’ Comes to the Big Screen
Director Luca Guadagnino, best known for his successful film adaptation of Call Me By Your Name and 2018 remake of the horror film Suspiria, announced that he is planning to adapt Bob Dylan’s 1975 album Blood on the Tracks for the screen. The news came a few weeks before the November 2 release of More Blood, More Tracks, a new album in Dylan’s bootleg series featuring studio recordings of the album’s songs which did not make the final album four decades ago. The film will be produced with RT Features, which acquired the film rights to the album in 2012 but did not move forward with production until now.
The film’s story will take place over several years in the 1970s. While the album Blood on the Tracks does not tell one continuous story, the film will draw on the album’s prominent themes. Specifically, the film will explore “passion and repression,” as screenwriter Richard LaGranvense told The New Yorker.
This is perhaps appropriate, as the songs for Blood on the Tracks were written and recorded at a particularly turbulent time in Dylan’s life: It was the summer of 1974, and Dylan had just returned to touring after a long break, says Howard Sounes, author of Down the Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan. “In the eight years or so prior to that Dylan had mostly avoided the road, staying home with his wife Sara and their young family in Manhattan and Woodstock, upstate New York, recording albums, but spurning the fast hedonistic life of the touring musician,” he says. “In 1974 he returned to that world, and that seems to have put a strain on his marriage.” Sara would file for divorce in 1977.
While critics and fans have speculated for years that Blood on the Tracks is autobiographical (a speculation which Dylan’s son Jakob has also agreed with), Dylan himself has denied it. He has claimed, instead, that the album is based on the short stories of Russian writer Anton Chekhov. As with many other aspects of Dylan’s life, it is hard to tell “truth” behind the work of the man, who is deeply private and at times contradictory in what little he does tell the public. However, many people now take it as established fact that Dylan’s personal life inevitably had an impact on his art. “The songs are about the man, but they’re also the product of the artist Bob Dylan,” says Richard Thomas, a Harvard professor who teaches a class on Dylan and author of the book Why Bob Dylan Matters. “They’re refracting his life experiences.”
Born to a Jewish family in Minnesota, Dylan practiced Judaism growing up, went to Jewish summer camp, and had a bar mitzvah at 13. In 1979, he shocked the world by announcing his conversion to Christianity. For three years, he exclusively recorded and played music with Christian themes, much to the dismay of his fans. He would eventually return to Judaism in the 1980s, going to Israel for his eldest son’s bar mitzvah, praying with Chabad and studying Talmud. Though Dylan’s music has never been overtly religious outside of his Christian phase, religious and Jewish themes still appear in songs over the years. Blood on the Tracks, dealing with themes of loss, longing, and hatred, is considered one of Dylan’s more secular albums, owing to the large influence of Dylan’s divorce from Sara.
That being said, the album is still rich in literary and religious imagery. “It’s not an overtly religious album like Saved, but there are Biblical references throughout Dylan’s career, and Blood on the Tracks is no exception,” say Sounes. The song “Shelter From the Storm” is perhaps the most notable on the album in terms of religious influences for its two verses in which the narrator seems to be Jesus. Lines like “She walked up to me so gracefully and took my crown of thorns” and “In a little hilltop village, they gambled for my clothes / I bargained for salvation and she gave me a lethal dose.” These lyrics might seem to point to Dylan’s impending conversion to Christianity, which occurred at the end of the decade, but Thomas does not think that it the case. For him, Dylan’s Jewishness is not in doubt: “He’s somebody who’s seeing his spirituality from the base of being Jewish, but there are multiple religious points of view that find their way into his songs.” This song is just one of many examples of that.
After all, this is why Bob Dylan has had such an enduring and influential career spanning over 50 years and touching millions of listeners’ lives along the way. “He sings our songs for us,” says Thomas. “Once he’s sung them, they become ours, become things that are in our heads and are reapplied to our life situations, to our memories, to our losses, to our recollections of what it is to be a human being.” Blood on the Tracks is, above all else, an album that focuses on love and hate, memory and loss—themes that are universal to human beings. One might say that the religious imagery in most of Dylan’s work serves to evoke emotion and a sense of history more so than to say anything about Dylan’s personal beliefs.
This early on, it is hard to say which of these themes will be explored in the upcoming film and whether the more religious aspects of Dylan’s life, Jewish or Christian, will play a role. Despite how little we know so far about what the film will explore, Sounes believes a Blood on the Tracks film has potential: “It’s an album of short stories with characters, action and distinct geographical settings. I think these songs could easily be adapted for the screen.” When you listen to a song like “Tangled Up in Blue” or “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts,” many cinematic elements are already there. What remains is the approach the specific filmmaker takes to adapting them.
Guadagnino’s Blood on the Tracks adaptation will follow several other Dylan-inspired adaptations: The 2007 film I’m Not There (directed by Todd Haynes) was a semi-biographical drama which explored Dylan’s life at different stages of his career; Dylan was played by six different actors over the course of the film. More recently, Connor McPherson’s stage drama Girl From the North Country drew on songs from Dylan’s discography as inspiration for a Depression-era story. After the success of its initial run in London, the play is now running in New York City. Girl From the North Country also deals more with the thematic aspects of Dylan’s work than his biography. It will be interesting to see how this new film will treat Dylan’s catalogue and what place it will have among other Dylan-inspired performances.