Looking back on the classic soundtrack to Sam Peckinpah’s bleak cult western
Bob Dylan has had significant roles in only three narrative features: Hearts of Fire, Masked and Anonymous and Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (Renaldo and Clara is something else altogether).
Only one of these films was directed by Sam Peckinpah, so it should come as little surprise that it’s a highlight of Dylan’s acting career. What’s more surprising is that it arrived so early–that he didn’t work his way up to it–though the same could be said of David Bowie, a welcome presence in most any project, but especially The Man Who Fell to Earth, the 1976 Walter Tevis adaptation he made with Nicolas Roeg.
It’s too bad both musicians didn’t work with filmmakers of that caliber more often, though Bowie, who acted more frequently, came closest with Tony Scott’s The Hunger and Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige.
It’s always beneficial when a musician plays to their strengths, not just in terms of ability, but in terms of genre. Science fiction made sense for Bowie, just as a western made sense for Dylan, even if neither artist capitalized on these early achievements. It doesn’t matter that Dylan didn’t grow up in the West. His entire body of work reveals a keen familiarity with the folk music and historical events of America’s past.
Three years before, Mick Jagger, a product of outer-London, tried his hand at a western in the form of Ned Kelly, the tale of an Australian folk hero. Tony Richardson, like Peckinpah, was a major talent, but he wasn’t a miracle worker. Though I’m relatively patient, I couldn’t get through it–Jagger is just that bad.
Though Peckinpah remains a legendary figure, his work is mostly the province of cinephiles these days, rather than the general audience of old. It’s possible more people, including non-Dylan fans, are familiar with the film’s gold-certified soundtrack; if not the whole thing, then at least “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.”
For all the attention he brought to the film, Dylan isn’t a lead in Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, though Peckinpah cast fellow musician–and native Texan–Kris Kristofferson as the outlaw opposite James Coburn’s sheriff. Unlike Dylan, Kristofferson didn’t dabble in acting; he worked with Martin Scorsese and other heavy hitters, and up until 2018, he was still going. It’s a small part, but he was aptly cast as the patriarch in Blaze, Ethan Hawke’s under-seen film about the short life of country musician Blaze Foley.
VIDEO: Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid trailer
In Peckinpah’s ninth feature, Dylan is heard before he’s seen. The film opens with a prologue set to an acoustic guitar-led lullaby with a South of the Border feel, appropriate since the action takes place in New Mexico, while filming took place in Durango (Dylan divided his recording sessions between Burbank and Mexico City). The music skews elegiac–a sign that at least one of these men won’t make it out alive. Among the estimable players: drummer Jim Keltner and Booker T. Jones of Booker T. & the M.G.’s.
Dylan’s first lyrical effort, “Billy,” doesn’t play until the opening credits, just after Garrett tells Billy he has five days to leave town. Afterward, Richard Bright’s Holly asks Billy, “Why don’t you kill him?” “Why? He’s my friend.” At which point Dylan launches into the main theme, starting with, “They say that Pat Garrett’s got your number, sleep with one eye open when you slumber.” It’s a classic story song, akin to Gene Pitney’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” Though Pitney’s song was cut from John Ford’s 1962 western, it was still a top five hit (“Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” peaked at #12 on Billboard’s Hot 100).
The lyrics–”Mama, take this badge off of me”–might suggest that “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” plays when Garrett meets his maker, except the director reserves it for Slim Pickens’ Sheriff Baker. The Peckinpah stock player isn’t in the film for very long, but as in 1972’s The Getaway, he makes it count. The song plays as he collapses by the river on which he had planned to sail away, while his wife (High Noon’s Katie Jurado), cries out in agony. It’s a deeply moving scene in a film that otherwise plays it cool.
VIDEO: Bob Dylan “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”
The other lyrical efforts, “Billy 4” and “Billy 7,” offer variations on the first “Billy,” though each version is slower and rougher than the last (if anything, I wish he had put more effort into those song titles).
As for Dylan, the actor, he’s an enigma. Though his character isn’t essential to the narrative, I like the ambiguity he adds to it. He makes his first appearance just after Billy has broken out of the county jail. Billy shoots the deputies, sings a jaunty tune about Lincoln, and sets out to steal a horse in order to reunite with his gang in Fort Sumner. It’s Kristofferson’s sole musical contribution, though this a cappella number doesn’t appear on the soundtrack. All the while, Dylan’s printer’s assistant watches with interest.
After a business trip, Garrett returns to Lincoln, where he notices the shifty-looking devil. “Who are you?,” he asks. “That’s a good question,” comes the gnomic reply. When he next appears, Dylan has caught up with Billy and his gang, though we never see him on a horse. Asks Michael T. Mikler’s Denver, “What’s your name, boy?” “Alias.” “Alias what?” “Alias anything you please!,” he spits impatiently. Near as I can tell, it’s a bit of a joke on the word “alias,” which shows up often in western lore. William H. Bonney and Kid Antrim, for instance, were aliases for Henry McCarty. McCarty’s best known alias: Billy the Kid.
Alias meets Garrett a second time when the sheriff runs into him at a country store while looking for Billy. Knowing that Alias represents less of a threat than the burlier gang members, Garrett orders him to read the label on every can on the shelves. Alias pulls out his glasses and dutifully starts to read. While he’s distracted, Garrett gets into a skirmish with one of the other men and shoots him dead. Alias looks over his shoulder, barely raising an eyebrow. That isn’t how most people would react to cold-blooded murder.
Throughout the film, most of the men visit prostitutes–even the married sheriff spends a busy afternoon at a cathouse–but not Alias (Kristofferson’s soon-to-be wife, Rita Coolidge, who claims part-Cherokee heritage, plays Billy’s Mexican sweetheart). And by the end of the film, most of the men on both sides are dead–but not Alias, who may fail to flinch at the sight of blood, but he’s less violent than any of the rest.
He’s a mystery Peckinpah never solves, in part because he cast Dylan in the film after hiring him, on Kristofferson’s insistence, to compose the score. Though Alias plays as fiction, Garrett had first mentioned him in his 1882 book, The Authentic Life of Billy, the Kid. Roger Ebert, for one, wasn’t impressed by Dylan’s take on the guy, writing, “His screen presence makes him look as if he’s the victim of a practical joke involving itching powder.” He’s not completely wrong, but it adds a dash of humor to a dark tale.
If anything, Alias could be seen as an extension of the Dylan in D.A. Pennebaker’s 1967 documentary Don’t Look Back or Martin Scorsese’s 2019 doc-fiction hybrid Rolling Thunder Revue. These films may have offered glimpses of the real Dylan–or he may have been putting on a show. As Janet Maslin put it in her New York Times review of Renaldo and Clara, “As an actor, Mr. Dylan specializes in giving the simultaneous impressions that he isn’t really interested in acting, and that he is always acting anyway.”
It’s a conundrum Todd Haynes would explore in 2007’s I’m Not There by casting six actors, including Cate Blanchett, as different aspects of Dylan’s persona. Richard Gere plays the Billy the Kid-inspired version (Blanchett, who plays the Don’t Look Back iteration, received an Oscar nomination for her inspired turn).
As for Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, Dylan’s first soundtrack sold well, but music critics labeled it a disappointment, and I can see why, since there isn’t a lot to it, though there’s much to be said for subtlety and simplicity. For a fuller picture, fans looked to bootlegs in order to hear the 14 songs excised from the 10-song release. It also marked Dylan’s reemergence after three years of silence, and expectations ran high, possibly unreasonably so. In retrospect, I’m not sure critics were being completely fair.
Jon Landau in Rolling Stone went so far as to suggest that Dylan aimed to disappoint, writing, “The original soundtrack of Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid is an extension of its myth-destroying predecessor Self-Portrait, a record which further eliminates the possibility of anyone placing Bob Dylan on a pedestal. It is every bit as inept, amateurish and embarrassing as the earlier album,” adding, “And it has all the earmarks of a deliberate courting of commercial disaster, a flirtation that is apparently part of an attempt to free himself from previously imposed obligations derived from his audience.” In conclusion: it’s “awful.”
Though a soundtrack should hold up as music in and of itself, like Leonard Cohen’s songs in McCabe & Mrs. Miller, it should serve the film first and foremost. On that score–pun intended–Dylan delivered.
By contrast, longtime Dylan associate Bruce Langhorne, who appears on Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, beguiled music critics when he scored Peter Fonda’s 1971 western, The Hired Hand. It doesn’t hurt that his lovely, haunting soundtrack was nearly impossible to find for over 30 years, making it a much-vaunted collector’s item, until a UK reissue finally appeared in 2004, followed by a US release in 2012.
Quality plus obscurity can make for a particularly enticing combination among music connoisseurs (and that excludes Dylan’s high-profile release). Nor does it hurt that a mystique had grown around Langhorne, a Black multi-instrumentalist missing most of three fingers on his right hand, who took a page from the Django Reinhardt playbook and developed his own unique picking style. He famously inspired Dylan’s 1965 single “Mr. Tambourine Man,” making it especially apropos that Roger McGuinn also plays on this album, since the Byrds titled their studio debut after the song, which they covered with equal success.
In 1973, it makes sense that Dylan fans would expect an album filled with figurative lyrics, or even a more forceful instrumental approach, but that isn’t what he provided. As opposed to the westerns of John Wayne’s era, in which score added emphasis to dramatic moments, Peckinpah uses it more sparingly in his revisionist western, a film bereft of true heroes–every character is flawed in some way–though Rudy Wurlitzer’s script clearly favors the independent-minded Billy. Dylan’s score, instead, serves primarily to set up scenes, to comment on incidents after the fact, and to transition between sequences, a crucial requirement in a film that alternates between the hunter and the hunted. (Last year, I wrote about Alex Cox’s complementary Walker for which Wurlitzer wrote the script largely on the strength of Pat Garrett.)
Alas, the film also premiered in a truncated form that the director disavowed, since MGM sliced and diced it against Peckinpah’s wishes when he went over time, over budget and over the ideal length, though the studio hardly helped matters by imposing unreasonable deadlines and throwing other roadblocks his way.
Consequently, film critics weren’t thrilled either until a 124-minute version appeared on home video in 1988. I’ve only seen the 115-minute version offered on most streaming services, though it’s still an improvement over the 106-minute theatrical cut. It’s to Peckinpah’s credit that he had the confidence in his work to use music only where it made sense (if anything, he wanted fewer vocals, but producer Gordon Carroll had other ideas). It’s just too bad Columbia didn’t release all 24 tracks at one time.
Nowadays Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid is considered a classic. Some critics even claim it as superior to Ride the High Country and The Wild Bunch, two of Peckinpah’s more warmly received 1960s westerns.
Though it’s a product of its time in terms of female characters who exist primarily to serve the men—the chickens Billy’s men use for target practice don’t make out too well either–Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, both film and soundtrack alike, deserves better than it got in 1973. As western aficionado Alex Cox told David Stewart of Dangerous Minds in 2022, “For all its difficulties, I think Rudy [Wurlitzer]’s collaboration with Peckinpah (and Dylan, and all the actors and crew!) led to the creation of a masterpiece.”
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