Bob Dylan’s ‘Blood on the Tracks’ as a rock opera? Jesus Christ...

Donald Clarke: The Who’s ‘Tommy’, ‘Quadrophenia’, Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’, Lloyd Webber. Enough

The news that Luca Guadagnino, director of Call Me by Your Name, is to film Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks has filled wise people with fears we are returning to the Dark Aeons.

A few commentators have suggested this might be the first time an album has ever been made into a film. If only this were true. It was never exactly a common practice. But there was a period – the Dark Aeons – when such transitions risked becoming a fashion. We have the most appalling of all cultural entities to blame for this near-fad. Imagine Rick Wakeman sounding ominous pipe organ chords while guest artist Richard Burton reads from the Tibetan Book of the Dead. A choir of thousands massively bellows three dread words: "The Concept Album!"

As the 1960s came to an end and rock stars faced up to middle age, they worried that posterity might treat them less respectfully than it treated William Blake or the Venerable Bede. Was it really possible that none of Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich would be interred in Poet's Corner? The artists' response was to compose enormously tedious multi-disc epics that addressed the discovery of Atlantis, the passions of Oedipus or their own engagement with primal scream therapy.

Pete Townshend of The Who was a famous repeat offender. The still barely endurable Tommy – grandly described as a "rock opera" – detailed the rise of a "deaf, dumb and blind kid" from Pinball Wizard to rock star to messianic deity. Pete followed that up with the slightly less pompous (but almost entirely tuneless) Quadrophenia.


Demonstrating some lack of confidence in the respectability of their own medium, the creators of concept albums were invariably eager to have their works transposed onto the big screen. The Who could have fared worse. Ken Russell’s film of Tommy (“Tommy, can you hear me?”) is, by any reasonable standards, a dreadful, dreadful film: the satires of post-war British decline are clunky; Keith Moon’s turn as a child abuser breaks new ground in the field of inappropriateness. But it was dreadful on such an enormous, fish-eyed, Russellian scale (“Tommy, can you hear me?”) that it secured an unshakable place in the era’s cultural bestiary.

Astonishingly, Franc Roddam's Quadrophenia actually managed to be a decent film. The director achieved this by largely ignoring Townshend's pretentious themes and by tidying away all but a few of the songs – the excellent 5:15 is among those that survived unedited – deep into the lower reaches of the sound mix. You could sit through the whole thing without suspecting it derived from rock opera.

Unhappy movement

A clever lawyer might argue for the inclusion of Evita and Jesus Christ Superstar in this unhappy movement. But, though both began as albums, the strategy was always to move swiftly towards stage incarnations. Only the most exhausting pedants regard Norman Jewison's Jesus Christ Superstar or Alan Parker's Evita as adaptations of records.

The near-craze reached its tipping point in 1982 with the release of Parker's atrocious Pink Floyd: The Wall. The flatulent, pretentious, meandering album – much of which addressed how terrible it is to be a pampered rock millionaire – at least played on devices with volume knobs that could be turned down and plugs that could be torn from their sockets. Once you'd paid your money to see Bob Geldof suffer in the film from debilitating wealth and renown, only premature flight from the cinema would set you free.

That was more or less the end of the line. The next generation of rock musicians, born after the release of the Beatles’ first LP, felt more secure in their medium and less inclined to ape classical styles. Albums ceased to tell long-form stories, and thus ceased to provide producers with the material for narrative features. They moved on to more fecund sources such as video games, TV series and food smears on discarded napkins (feel my sarcasm).

It sounds as if Guadagnino is running short of inspirations. His forthcoming film is a remake of Dario Argento’s great horror shocker Suspiria. His much-proposed sequel to Call Me By Your Name has driven André Aciman, author of the source novel, to paroxysms of denial. We can at least console ourselves with the news that Luca appears to be approaching Blood on the Tracks from a properly oblique angle. The Italian director is planning to make “a multiyear story, set in the ’70s . . . drawing on the album’s central themes”.

That sounds about right. We could live with an entertainment drenched in the ramshackle clutter that characterised Dylan’s imagination in his high years. The picture could flit between different genres and different tones. It could even incorporate various versions of Dylan himself. Hang on. Haven’t I just described Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There?

Don’t fret. It may never happen.