Bob Dylan wasn’t doing much in 1971 or 1972 for that matter. This led him to an interview with director Sam Peckinpah with the hope of providing the soundtrack for his new movie, Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid. Peckinpah was not really familiar with Dylan or his music but allowed him to play a few tunes. Dylan was rewarded with the job of scoring the movie. He also managed to acquire a acting role as well.
The film, starring James Coburn, Kris Kristofferson and the immortal Slim Pickens, would be an average movie. Dylan’s soundtrack however, would prove to be excellent and more popular than the film. It was also commercially successful and would earn gold status in the United States.
Many rock musicians have failed miserably when trying their hand at providing songs for a movie soundtrack. Dylan would prove his genius by creating music that not only accompanied, but also reflected, the content of the film and in the final analysis superseded it. He was smart enough to create music with an emotional impact rather than the intellectual appeal that his songs had presented in the past. As such, the soundtrack to Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid is a legitimate, but often forgotten, gem in the Dylan catalogue.
He would provide mostly instrumental songs for this album and they gave an excellent look into his creative development of song structures and his use of instruments to create a sound. Rarely, over the years, would he present so many tracks without lyrics.
One song that would have accompanying lyrics would be a classic and as the years passed. It would overshadow both the album as a whole and the movie itself. “Knockin’ On Heavens Door” would fit the story well. It was a song that focused on the inevitability of the end of life. Today, when taken out of the context for which it was written, “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door has taken on a spiritual quality. Dylan’s vocal style is similar to that of Nashville Skyline and it is a deserving signature song for him.
I have always found the three Billy songs fascinating. Titled Billy 1”, Billy 4” and Billy 7,” they show his mind at work. He takes the same theme, with and without lyrics, and alters the timing and the tempo to fit the movie’s action. Given the numbers, I am assuming there were other versions as well.
A couple of other songs stand the test of time well. “Turkey Chase” is just good old foot stompin’ music. It is more blue grass than anything else. “Final Theme” is a memorable conclusion to the album and the movie. It is a haunting piece that that presents a mood of tragedy and longing.
Is Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid of equal quality to Dylan’s best albums? The answer is no. However, it does remain an excellent and calming listen over thirty years later. Not many soundtracks can make that claim.