Bob Dylan turned 70 this week. It’s a testament to his continuing impact on the cultural landscape that people are getting excited about a pensioner’s birthday, or that a biopic was made in 2007 even while the old codger was still alive and making music. I think I agree with the quote, featured on Wikipedia, from Luke Davies of The Monthly who calls I’m Not There a “beautiful failure of a film“. It is a gorgeous, nuanced film, manifestly crafted with love and care, but ultimately it’s an experiment which doesn’t work. It fails because it’s incoherent and jumbled, tripping up over its own conceit and unlikely to impress upon anyone not owning a lifetime membership to the Bob Dylan fanclub.
If you missed the concept from when it was released in 2007, I’m Not There is Todd Haynes’ bold attempt to chronicle the wildly varied life of Dylan, the idiosyncratic singer-songwriter, folk hero and ‘people’s poet’. Haynes’ quite thoughtful reasoning goes that since his subject has had such a colourful existence, particularly his early ‘golden’ sixties era, these contrasting personas should be portrayed with contrasting characters. A straight biopic wouldn’t cut it. So we have a Dylan in six different guises, played by six different actors, each with six different names. Dylan is only named once, in the opening credits.
This serves to be a little confusing if, like me, you are not a disciple of the Church of Dylan. (Don’t get me wrong, I like him a lot, and own a couple of albums, but, y’know, he’s alright.) We open on Dylan as a boy, depicted as a hobo-travellin’ African-American pre-pubescent boy named Woody Guthrie (Marcus Carl Franklin, in one of the many gobsmackingly brilliant performances in this film); along the way we meet Jude Quinn (Cate Blanchett) as Dylan going electric, Jack Rollins (Christian Bale), the subject of a folk documentary, and perhaps most bafflingly, Robbie Clark (Heath Ledger) as an actor playing Rollins, but also incorporating elements of Dylan’s life.
Are you following? Because I had trouble, and I’m not someone who usually has trouble comprehending pretentious art film experiments. The problem with such a boldly avant-garde approach to a real-life figure is I found myself constantly firing up Wikipedia to check facts. Did Dylan really hang out with Allen Ginsburg, sympathise with JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, or become a born-again Christian preacher? (As I discovered: yes; pretty much; sort of.)
Most baffling of all is Richard Gere as Billy the Kid, which without trusty Wikipedia informing me that Dylan once played Billy the Kid in a Sam Peckinpah film would have seemed a bizarre tangent. Had I not had a user-generated online encyclopaedia at my beck and call, I would have been deeply bewildered by this seemingly irrelevant Wild West side story. And learning the thought process behind its inclusion provided little further clarity.
With biopics, I always feel you should apply the ‘sequel test’. A sign of a good sequel is one where you don’t need to have seen the original to understand, appreciate or enjoy it – and so a good biopic should not assume the story it is telling is one we’ve heard before. Todd Haynes is a supremely talented filmmaker, but here his narrative skills fall down, with a movie analogous to poorly designed wedding cake, or a supermodel in a mudbath – a beautiful mess.
PS: I do realise that if this were a university essay, I would recieve a mark of zero for my numerous Wikipedia citations. Sorry about that. I’ll reference Britannica next time.