Jugglers and clowns or innocent lip-synchers? The first-ever video for Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” is a user-driven novelty item, a chance to listen to one of rock ’n’ roll’s greatest monuments while channel surfing. It’s ultimate message is as fuzzy as reception via a rabbit ear antenna, far less powerful than DA Pennebaker’s footage of Dylan and cue cards for “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” much less questionable than his Victoria’s Secret ad.
All 16 channels, whether its home shopping, a tennis match or Drew Carey hosting “The Price is Right,” features actors, a rapper, an animated girl and reality stars singing – or at least mouthing – the words to the Dylan classic from “Highway 61 Revisited.” Its purpose is to conjure sales of the 47-CD set “The Complete Album Collection, Vol. One.”
The digital media company Interlude created the patented technology platform and partnered with Pulse Films (LCD Soundsystem’s "Shut Up and Play the Hits") and Walter Pictures to make the various programs.
Besides Carey, viewers can watch Marc Maron recording his podcast on WTFC, “Pawn Stars’” Rick Harrison and Chumlee looking over a vintage acoustic guitar and rapper Danny Brown eating lunch. A fashion show’s street interviews have a unique cleverness as does a diner scene in a romantic comedy and a news report about a stabbing in the U.K.
Director Vania Heymann certainly found the right images for two blistering couplets, making Dylan’s lyrics prescient as they so often are:
“Princess on the steeple and all the pretty people
They’re drinkin’, thinkin’ that they got it made
Exchanging all kinds of precious gifts and things
But you’d better lift your diamond ring, you’d better pawn it babe.”
After watching it four times I went the purist route and was thrilled by Channel 121. Here’s footage of young Dylan, buoyant and unsmiling, during that revolutionary transition period when folk music fans were not quite ready for the genre’s messianic figures to plug in their Fender guitars and rail against authority. The very young and energetic Robbie Robertson and Rick Danko flank Dylan and exhibit a level of abandon foreign to the folk music crowd.
The Times They Are A Changin': Dylan's 47-CD box set.
Clever as the TV conceit is – it may be the first noteworthy video of 2013 without a topless woman – it does not necessarily enhance the song. It illuminates the song’s conversational tone, an element that generally takes a backseat to its accusatorial lines and cadence; oddly enough, most everyone’s expression is either smiling or indifferent. The rage is all within Dylan’s vocals.
If it introduces new listeners to Dylan then the gimmick works. If the celebrities seen in the video are made proselytizers via proxy, then great. Heymann has said more footage could be added later, extending the metaphor if you will. That makes sense as Dylan’s music, particularly from his fertile mid-‘60s period, develops layers of truth over time. “Like a Rolling Stone” held up a mirror to society in 1965 and today that reflection, sadly, is reality TV and its disposable personalities.