The year the rock biopic swelled with self-awareness
Is defining I'm Not There the same thing as defending it? Todd Haynes's kaleidoscopic antibiography of, to quote the tagline, "the music and many lives of Bob Dylan" has inspired all sorts of platitudes since it premiered at the Venice Film Festival, so many that it's hard not to feel late for the party only a few months after. Still, the fact remains: from listening to Biograph cassettes in the backseat of my mom's car to reading Greil Marcus's visionary accounts of The Basement Tapes and "Like a Rolling Stone," I've had Dylan on my mind, always prepared to apprehend another side of him.
It's hard not to feel privileged watching I'm Not There as both a Dylan enthusiast and a cinephile. You can read it between the lines of an erudite review like J. Hoberman's didja catch the references to Suze Rotolo and Masculine Feminine? So then, a solipsistic designation for a solipsistic movie: I'm Not There is a catalog and a critique, a hall of mirrors, multivalent and prismatic, like Woody Allen's Zelig (1983) turned inside out. It is epigrammatic rather than evocative, and made to be written about.
It is also a twisted kind of biopic, something worth noting with everyone from Ray Charles to Scott Walker getting the treatment. The fad for music biopics and documentaries isn't unrelated to the tendency toward remakes and tie-ins now apparent everywhere in the entertainment business. Only a couple of years after Walk the Line and Ray, some biopic conventions are already brittle enough to encourage both a throwaway parody like Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story and a hardcore dissertation like I'm Not There (the films have more in common than you might think). Haynes takes the biopic's tendency toward flashback-reliant storytelling, for instance, and transforms it into a looping, fractured portrait. Name-dropping is the biopic's natural territory, but Haynes's esoteric (Moondog in the opening credits) and cryptic (it's alright, Ma, it's only Ritchie Havens) references only add to his film's foggy rendition.
This is as it should be with Dylan, the singer who at the tender age of 22 began a protest song with the lyric "Oh my name it is nothing, my age it means less." The feedback loops produced by the film's strategy of quotation and fragmentation work to elucidate Dylan's critical velocity, the way his different eras seem both terminal (the electric Dylan played by Cate Blanchett is shown in a morgue, and there are intimations that other versions of him are dead too) and porous. Where other music biopics seek to ground a singer's aura in terms of biography and motif, Haynes runs in the opposite direction, prioritizing an abstract organizing principle like that of D.W. Griffith's innovative 1916 foray into multiplanar cinematic storytelling, Intolerance.
It should be noted that Weinstein's ad campaign pointedly undercuts Haynes's game. Dylan only materializes twice in text during the opening credits and in person for the movie's final, mesmerizing close-up but the I'm Not There poster lists the main cast with the misleading line "All are Bob Dylan."
Blatant Oscar pandering? Perhaps. But what does it say that some of my favorite sequences in I'm Not There are the most conventional? Haynes accesses the "romantic" Dylan of Blonde on BlondeNew MorningBlood on the Tracks with an interesting Russian-doll trick Heath Ledger's Robbie Clark is introduced as an actor portraying Jack Rollins (The Times They Are A-Changin' Dylan, played by Christian Bale) in a biopic within the biopic titled Grain of Sand. 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. Arthur Russell, maybe, or perhaps Nina Simone? Cat Power, a.k.a. Chan Marshall, is certainly building toward a good one with all of those onstage breakdowns behind her, and I'd like nothing better than for Haynes to take an honest crack at Karen Dalton or Judee Sill. What of Big Star, John Fahey, Tropicália's icons, Elizabeth Cotten, Galaxie 500 (directed by Andrew Bujalski), or the Mamas and the Papas? And won't someone think of poor Donovan, patiently waiting his turn ever since being put down by you know who in Don't Look Back? *
MAX GOLDBERG'S BAKER'S DOZEN
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