Well, hell, why not? Pop biopics are now almost mandatory, a genre (or an industry) unto themselves—a resurrection for fans, identity theft for performers copping the subjects’ moves and mantle. Whether you’re watching Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles or Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash or Marion Cotillard as Edith Piaf, the effect is pretty much the same, however unintended: karaoke night. The subjects’ flaws are fetishized, their failings milked for bathos, yet we scarcely get closer to the artist than makeup and mimicry. It’s public mummification. Dylan was bound to get the head-on-Mount-Rushmore treatment someday; he probably escaped this long because he’s never stood still long enough for the vultures to light.
Haynes doesn’t dodge all the biopic problems either: At the movie’s worst, he just quotation-marks them, shuffling off glib career-overview judgments onto pseudo-doc talking heads and staging lives-of-the-great clichés with an overlay of arty facetiousness. But as a cartwheeling whole, I’m Not There is energizing and expansive, not reductive. It unfolds and recombines in our heads, ensuring that the Dylan who emerges from this prismatic portrait is, like the movie itself, larger than the sum of his dazzling and maddening parts.
I’m Not There finesses the problem of how to portray an artist who’s spent a lifetime dodging the pins of butterfly collectors. After a career of endlessly suggestive but elusive phrase-making, the shock of Dylan’s recent autobiography was its plain-spokenness: its lack of mystery was downright mysterious—an unveiling that was somehow even more of a vanishing act. Haynes and co-screenwriter Oren Moverman don’t presume to explain away, or even know, the “real” Bob Dylan, and I’m not sure they care. The spirit of self-invention is what Haynes celebrates. He started his career with a devastating Karen Carpenter biopic staged with Barbie dolls, and I’m Not There is if anything his most intricate dollhouse yet—bigger even than his 1998 glam-rock fantasia Velvet Goldmine, that dizzying feathers-and-guyliner dress-up party for Malibu Ken. Pop history is the search for a costume that fits, and in Dylan, Haynes has a subject with a ginormous wardrobe.
In a typically audacious move, Haynes acknowledges the biopic right up front as a form of public autopsy. What looks like the body of Bob Dylan lies in a casket, and a scalpel pierces flesh. Finally! We’re gonna cut the guy open and find out where “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” came from! No less a forensic expert than Kris Kristofferson informs us on the soundtrack we’ll have “the ghost of electricity” laid open before us—and the movie cuts again, filling our eyes with cinematographer Edward Lachman’s beautiful disheveled black-and-white images of subways and hoboes and city streets and our ears with the chugging harp and careening wordplay of “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again.”
From there, young Woody (Marcus Carl Franklin) hops a freight car with a guitar labeled “This Machine Kills Fascists,” winding up at the home of an African American matriarch (Kim Roberts) who sternly beseeches him to drop the tall tales and the stale union anthems and “live your own time.” Flash! Chipper fake documentary footage informs us that the folk scene in Greenwich Village is now all the rage—especially this upstart kid Jack Rollins (Christian Bale), a protest-singing wunderkind variously described by his dismissive Joan Baez-ish ex (a deliciously curdled Julianne Moore cameo) as a “twerp,” a “toad” and a “ragamuffin.” Hollywood comes calling, casting one Robbie Clark (Heath Ledger) in a star-making role as a platitude-spouting, g-droppin’ Rollins facsimile.
By the time one “Jude Quinn” shows up at the Newport (excuse me, the “New England”) Folk Festival, Haynes has primed the movie for his entrance…and the stunt casting of Cate Blanchett as the Judas-gone-electric who scandalized the folk movement is a roaring success. Blanchett has the Halloween costume, sure—the Einstein coif, the shades, the black rocker threads—but she reaches beyond imitation to capture Dylan’s acid wit and magnetism. Confrontational, girlish and strung out from constant touring, her Jude steps on stage, flips open his guitar case and machine-guns the audience—not an inapt metaphor for the impact of that primordial “Maggie’s Farm.” “And we were his biggest fans,” sighs one betrayed apostle—cueing a track past a long line of accusing faces to the weirdly jolly organ intro of “Positively 4th Street.”
Does it matter that the scenes of Bale’s overwrought mumbly-Joe brooding—complete with an agonizingly mannered desecration of “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”—aren’t dissimilar from the cornball Rollins biopic-within-the-biopic Grain of Sand? In the end, not really: they’re absorbed into the epic pastiche of Haynes’ conception—a free-associative flood of cinematic and sociopolitical ’60s touchstones, bracketed (like Robbie’s marriage to self-negating French beauty Charlotte Gainsbourg) by the years of the Vietnam conflict. “They had just buried their president,” Ledger confides acidly in voiceover. “Love was in the air.” So is the Nouvelle Vague, Fellini’s 8 1/2, A Hard Day’s Night—and of course the pioneering rock docs of D.A. Pennebaker, whose films wouldn’t have existed if this Dylan kid hadn’t convinced people, for the first time in pop history, that they needed to know every thought, utterance and attitude behind the music.
With editor Jay Rabinowitz as beatmaster, Haynes spins them all into a freewheeling mash-up, an approximation of Dylan’s playful mind-out-of-time ransacking of Tin Pan Alley tropes and older-than-Dock-Boggs folklore. The Criterion Collection is Haynes’ Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music. Thus Bale experiences his thunderbolt conversion to Christianity in the opening shot of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg—you got a more convincing intimation of the divine?—and Ledger registers the first hints of his unraveling marriage in a movie-premiere voiceover straight out of Godard’s Band of Outsiders: “It wasn’t the film they had dreamed.”
Dylan’s music, similarly, becomes a kind of mythic miasma—a body of folklore unmoored in time. Songs provide the signposts, linked more closely to each other than to any one phase of his career: the preteen Woody jams acoustically on the electric Dylan’s “Tombstone Blues,” while the first notes of 1966’s “Visions of Johanna” accompany Billy (Richard Gere), a middle-aged composite of the Basement Tapes-era Dylan and the gnomic old-weird-America sage of his 21st century albums. Somewhere between the light-headed harmonica intro to “I Want You” and the scorched-earth “Idiot Wind”—the bitterly resigned Bootleg Series take, not the cathartically accusatory version on Blood on the Tracks—Ledger and Gainsbourg fall in and out of love.
A movie that reaches this far and wide will falter. Though ingenious, even insightful, the decision to split Dylan into six different personas makes the characters by design one-dimensional. This hurts most in the Gere segments, an unplayable amalgam of Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid and The Basement Tapes’ woolly medicine-show Americana. What comes off as rollicking and spontaneous in Dylan looks forced and pretentious here, especially with Gere wandering in squinty incomprehension among circus folk and runaway giraffes. To paraphrase “Desolation Row,” Gere’s sin is his lifelessness.
But even then, I’m Not There never obscures Dylan’s music the way some of his more ardent analysts do. It makes you want to lean closer and listen up—the same reaction I had in high school when a friend cued up “Mr. Tambourine Man” for the first time and those skipping reels of rhyme began to unfurl. There’s a scene here where a fan accosts Jude and blurts out the coded meanings of his songs, and yeah, the danger of watching this movie (especially for Dylan fanatics) is that it might turn you into that guy, endlessly parsing the simplest throwaway detail in a search for meaning. Chances are, though, that a meaning is there—even in the gorgeously elusive title song, an elegy in search of something to mourn. And if it isn’t, we can always take a cue from this thrillingly dense film and the chameleon who inspired it, and invent it for ourselves.
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