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TIFF 2018: How Bob Dylan Influenced Dan Fogelman’s Life Itself

Life Itself

image credit: courtesy of tiff

If you like Bob Dylan, then this is the film for you.

While Dan Fogelman’s Life Itself isn’t directly about the iconic American singer, it’s the short bursts of songs from his 1997 Time Out of Mind littered throughout the film that piece the story together, linked by the one happy song on the record: “Make You Feel My Love.”

Fogelman’s (This Is Us) latest drama about love and loss, ambitiously set across years and continents, eventually intertwining with one another. The film initially follows NYU graduate—and Bob Dylan music lover—Abby (Olivia Wilde) and her boyfriend Will (Oscar Isaac), who loves her deeply, but the depth of his commitment can be overwhelming. From there, we meet Will’s parents who have their own stories to live out before the action leaps to Spain, where more is revealed about these interwoven narratives.


The characters’ journeys span between lovers and friends, children and parents, America and Europe, and even past and present, as Dylan’s music sees them through it all. Here are a few ways in which the folk legend’s music shape the film’s narrative.


The emotion behind his lyrics

Dylan’s tracks are filled with passionate words that ring out more like modern poetry than music, filled to the brim with stirring emotions. Dylan’s music has covered everything from happiness to sadness to anger and pain. Life Itself is more tragedy than happiness, with a few instances of great love sprinkled in between, making all the sad tracks on the record perfect in matching the characters’ heartbreaking stories.


How his music shaped history

Dylan has been an active voice for social and political change, and one only needs to listen to his music to be aware of this. His collection of work includes a handful of songs that helped change the course of history—“Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Hurricane,” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’” to name a few. The 1960s ushered in a new era of music filled with social messages that reflected the political environment at the time, pushing for change.

Dylan used his art to give listeners his perspective on the world, reflecting global issues back to his listener through the music—much like how Life Itself is constantly rewriting its story. By moving back and forth between the past and the present, the film’s narrative re-shape’s its own history with each scene.


The details in his songs

Dylan isn’t the kind of musician to not put careful thought and consideration into his songs. The details are in the way his melodies flow with the instruments and it’s in the way he crafts emotional lyrics with powerful messages. Fogelman is the same, making sure every tiny detail in the film’s plot is accounted for and seamlessly connected not just among each character, but also between the audience and those characters.


He’s an unreliable narrator

Life Itself is clearly about love and loss, but those themes revolve around the concept of the unreliable narrator. Abby argues in her college thesis that all art has an unreliable narrator—you never actually know if what’s being presented is accurate. It’s up to the discretion of the presenter—and the only reliable narrator is, of course, life itself. Dylan’s Time Out of Mind is the perfect example of unreliable narration. The singer-songwriter chronicles loss after loss in all his melancholic tracks providing one silver lining with “Make You Feel My Love.” Yet listeners don’t ever know if what he’s crooning on about is true or if it’s just his side of a larger story.

Life Itself is set to hit theatres September 21. Make sure to also read our interview with the film’s composer, Federico Jusid.

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