Steal a little and they throw you in jail
Steal a lot and they make you king
That's so good you might think it comes from the Bible or Shakespeare. But no, it's Bob Dylan, in the song "Sweetheart Like You." Some say Dylan himself has stolen a lot, whether it's lyrics and imagery from Civil War poets or an entire attitude from the protest culture of the 60s. When he turned his back on that scene, which had made him a cultural icon, the true believers called for blood. Personally, despite my unwavering admiration for his music, I never looked to it for genuine solace, and I stopped imagining his silence on world affairs was a deprivation after I saw him accept an award on TV by thanking his record company.
Considering Haynes's attack on David Bowie in Velvet Goldmine, one might have wondered what he had in store for Dylan. Haynes branded the once-epicene Ziggy Stardust, or at least his fictional surrogate, with a big S for selling out his flamboyantly publicized bi-sexuality and adopting a more commercial persona. The protean Dylan would seem to provide an even easier mark on any number of perceived heresies. After all, even Eminem outpoints the former folk idol when it comes to socially conscious music these days. But Haynes was unable to secure the rights to any Bowie songs -- the rock star must have read the script. The very fact that Dylan himself signed off on this current project would seem to telegraph its lack of fangs. Indeed, I’m Not There is an exploration and homage to that elusive quality that has come to define Bob Dylan. The upside of official sanction is a nice array of Dylan songs set to beautifully-composed images, including “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” to open the film, and a great cover of "Tombstone Blues" sung by Richie Havens and some other guys playing blues musicians. The downside, however, prevails.
The film is a meticulously crafted and impressionistic account of the maestro's various incarnations. It’s also a renunciation of the increasingly popular biopic, the turgid A to Z unfolding of the lives of Johnny Cash or Ray Charles or Mahatma Gandhi or Big Bird that has won so many Oscars recently. These usually have me bored by the junior high years, knowing any one issue or plot point will receive short shrift by necessity. Haynes elides all that by melding reality with fiction, creating alter-egos to represent distinct periods in Dylan’s life. They’re sort of metaphorical avatars, different takes on how to read his various selves:
- Woody Guthrie, -- an itinerant wiz kid (like 12 years old) who’s adopted the name and style of the great folk singer to take up riding the rails. An African American, he winds up as a sort of cherished pet of condescending, rich white dilettantes.
- Arthur Rimbaud, who’s only seen reciting poetry
- Jude Quinn (Cate Blanchett) – the 1965 “Don’t Look Back” Dylan straight up
- Jack Rollins (Christian Bale) a young singer who’s descended on the New York folk scene. Later, he becomes a born again pastor
- Robbie Clark (Heath Ledger) – a Hollywood star whose breakthrough role is that of playing Jack Rollins the folk singer. (Get it?)
- Billy the Kid (Richard Gere) – a mythical figure inhabiting a mythical town and landscape that seem to represent Dylan’s imagination and/or songs
If you’re thinking all this sounds a wee bit pretentious, drop the “wee” part. About a half hour in, my disappointment began to curdle into something like anxious rancor. Haynes directed my favorite film of ALL TIME, and Dylan takes up more space on my cd shelves than anyone except Miles Davis. Put them together, I figured, and it should have been a peanut butter/chocolate natural. But Haynes's creation of so many personas feels like hagiography. Sure, the man’s complex, but does he really have the soul of an angelic black kid, a legendary gunslinger, and a French symbolist poet all vying for supremacy?
Fortunately, Cate Blanchett saves the entire enterprise. Her muttering, twitching, dead-on circa-65 Dylan had me in stitches, although I would say an overfamiliarity with DA Pennebaker’s documentary, Don’t Look Back is required to fully appreciate this segment. It’s here that Haynes drops his artistic pretensions in favor of Spinal Tappish verisimilitude. Good choice. If you’re a Dylanphile, there’s a lot fun to be had from attempting to match up the ersatz personalities on-screen with their real-life counterparts. We get an alternate universe Albert Grossman, Dylan’s monstrous manager, and a doppleganger Alan Price, Dylan’s running buddy and Animals keyboardist. But unless you’re the type of music fanatic who gets a kick out of the fictional Dylan meeting the Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones and describing him as a guitarist for “that covers band,” or one who will marvel at the recreation of Joan Baez’s hairstyle on the head of Julianne Moore, even playing the whisper-to-Molly game of “that’s Pete Seeger pulling the plug at the Newport Festival” and “I think that’s supposed to be Edie Sedgewick” is unlikely to provide enough of a diversion. In fact, and this is just a guess, but anyone unfamiliar with the various nooks and crannies of Dylan’s life will probably be bored silly if not totally perplexed by the whole thing.
I suppose when it comes to Haynes, I’m like the first wave of Dylan fans. I keep wanting Haynes to re-make Safe, the scariest and most devastating commentary on contemporary America I’ve ever seen. But as he’s shown in this film, in some souls exist many artists. If we can connect at some point with just one of them, I suppose that'll have to be enough.