With the exception of an Arthur Rimbaud insert, Robbie is the only Dylan facsimile who never plays a guitar, and this makes sense since the Dylan of "I Want You," "Shelter from the Storm," and "Idiot Wind" always seemed more man than musician. Meanwhile, Robbie's thorny relationship with Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) provides I'm Not There with some desperately needed warmth. A François Truffautish meeting in a diner, a montage of bohemian New York, and a divorce in the late-day light of the Richard Nixon era: they're all strands of a singular story, which is exactly what I'm Not There is not.
I felt fully prepared to dig Haynes's panoply, and after seeing the movie three times I'm pretty sure I do. In its constant double-edged critiques and heady invocations of the nonexistent, I'm convinced the film represents one of the most energetic (and perhaps cathartic) directing performances of the year. And yet something's lost in I'm Not There's reshuffling of the biopic deck. Dylan has indeed spent much of his career putting us on, but this is only one part of his impact, with the other more elemental component encompassing the sound of his voice, the exciting bite of his phrasing, and the lightning crack that opens "Like a Rolling Stone."
These sparks of electricity are, after all, the kind of thing rock biopics were made for. The brute power of cinema is such that with a Dolby soundtrack, heavy close-ups, and a gliding camera, even the hammiest dramatization can achieve moments of rock 'n' roll bliss. Insofar as Anton Corbijn's portrait of Joy Division singer Ian Curtis (Control) prizes re-creation over fragmentation, it might fairly be seen as the polar opposite of Haynes's broken mirror. Corbijn takes the biopic conceit of mimicry to dizzying, self-aware heights thanks to location shooting, a performer (Sam Riley) who learned to match Curtis's every twitch, and brilliant cinematography evocative of Corbijn's own iconic photographs of the band.
Control is very good, with excellent acting and convincing performance scenes (two things that go a long way toward making a satisfying rock biopic), though it fails where biopics typically do. Indeed, it's always a bad sign when a voice-over is introduced more than an hour into a movie. As Curtis shuts down, Corbijn flails to unpack the singer's psychology, and the voice-over contrivance only fudges the moment of Curtis's maximum anguish. Still, there is at least one unforgettable scene here when Curtis stalks the street toward his day job, the soundtrack raw with punk, a graceful camera turn revealing the back of his jacket, emblazoned in chalky white with the word "HATE" that offers the euphoric, sexy blast that is so often lost in I'm Not There's complex din.
There are other forms of music biopic, including the kind that's genuinely happy to take liberties (see: 8 Mile, Almost Famous). Kurt Cobain about a Son sounded like an interesting experiment on paper, with a soundtrack culled from Michael Azerrad's late-night interviews with Cobain jutting up against lyrical images from the Pacific Northwest. But the film is ultimately soured by its unresolved discrepancies (it's hard to make out what such self-consciously pretty images are doing running under Cobain's gravely, often vitriolic voice-over) and its discussion-ending lack of original Nirvana music. Cobain relates his thrill at hearing "Love Buzz" on college radio for the first time, and we listen to ... Iggy Pop?
What does it say about Cobain's legacy that both cinematic attempts at his life (the other being Gus Van Sant's evocative 2005 Last Days) have been narrated from such a remove? For one thing, that the slightest morsel of Kurt is good enough to buy distribution. The parade continues, leading one to compile a wish list of future biopic subjects.
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