Bob Dylan was one album into his late-career comeback when he released “Things Have Changed,” the Academy Award-winning song from Wonder Boys, which arrived in theaters on Feb. 22, 2000.
After a decade noted mostly for its unfocused work (Empire Burlesque, Down in the Groove) with occasional reminders of his past greatness (Infidels, Oh Mercy), Dylan managed to raise himself from the ashes in the early ’90s, and it finally came to a head with 1997’s Time Out of Mind. Always an old soul, he found his latter-day calling as a road-show troubadour, a mystical American flaneur at the end of his grizzled life, a hill-country bard who’d just walked in from a Dust Bowl-era speakeasy with his spats, fedora and backing country-jazz band neatly in place. He seemed to realize, in essence, that his broken-hearted reproach of existence works at least as well coming from the end of life as it did coming from the beginning.
Cue Curtis Hanson’s Wonder Boys.
The film features Michael Douglas as Grady Tripp, an aging writer and professor struggling with the fact that his greatest success is in the past and his current novel in-progress is 2,600 pages long with no end in sight. He has a possibly suicidal protégé (Tobey Maguire), a flamboyantly lecherous literary agent (Robert Downey Jr.) and a student renting a room in his house who’s more than a little in love with him (Katie Holmes). He has also just been left by his wife, impregnated the chancellor of his university (Francis McDormand), whose dog he managed to kill. Tripp is also smoking so much pot that he occasionally blacks out, and is being pursued by a James Brown lookalike (Richard Knox) who claims Tripp stole his car.
Tripp, in other words, is a character facing middle age, failure, drug problems and the rapidly diminishing possibilities of his once-monumental talent. It’s the basis for a delightful film, at once funny and heartfelt, that also serves as and a rumination on the perils of aging and the artistic life. It’s also a close approximation of what Bob Dylan had been going through.
Dylan has always enjoyed functioning as a cipher, and it’s difficult to guess exactly why he decided to write a song for the soundtrack. What is clear is that it was the right song at the right time. A year later, he won the Oscar for Best Original Song and performed it at the ceremony via satellite link, as his never-ending tour had at that point landed on the far shores of Australia. In a brief acceptance speech, he said that he wanted “to thank the members of the Academy who were bold enough to give me this award for this song, which obviously [is] a song that doesn’t pussyfoot around nor turn a blind eye to human nature.”
Watch Bob Dylan’s Academy Award Acceptance Speech
Which is another way of saying that the song is a pessimistic one. Bob Dylan might have been in the middle of perhaps his greatest comeback, but he would never admit to wanting or enjoying the limelight. Instead, as he’d been doing for 40 years, he would play the uncatchable, wise fool who will never stand where you can really see him.
“I used to care,” runs the song’s chorus. “But things have changed.” Was this an idol of the ’60s admitting that, in his waning years, he’d lost the spirit to change the world that had once defined him (or been more or less wrongly attributed to him)? Or was it an aging songwriter declaring that all his worldliness had been shed, and all that was left was his devotion to the music itself?
Both, and neither. “I’m in the wrong town,” runs another line from the song, “I should be in Hollywood.” Is this a sly way of admitting that he really is after the fame? Or is he mocking himself in the way he’s always been fond of, using the self-laceration that gives his greatest love songs their power? And is it relevant that he later licensed “Things Have Changed” to Chrysler so they could use it to sell cars? Who knows.
While the meaning of the song is typically open to interpretation, Dylan’s career status in its wake is not. Along with Time Out of Mind, 2001’s Love & Theft and 2006’s Modern Times were his best-reviewed since the high period of the ’60s and early ’70s. When the Nobel Prize for Literature arrived in 2016, it was like that one-eyed eccentric genius of an uncle who happens to live on your screened-in back porch was finally getting recognized for what he is.
Watch Bob Dylan’s Video for “Things Have Changed”