I had a bad habit in college of cornering people at parties and drunkenly sharing my myriad theories on the life and music of my hero Bob Dylan. In my defense I only did this when I was reeeeally drunk–otherwise I'm sure I would have noticed the thousand-yard stares coming back at me well before I launched into the "Dylan wasn't really a protest singer, he was just exploiting the folk scene to become a star" part of my lecture. Rest assured, I don't make people listen to my Dylan-related ramblings anymore. (At least not people who aren't my girlfriend.) But that doesn't make up for the hours of tedium I forced on friends and strangers in the late '90s. After seeing Todd Haynes' new Dylan biopic I'm Not There on Friday, I understand better than ever how painful it is to sit through a Dylan fan's incoherent blather about the man, the music, and the myth–oh my God, the fucking myth!–for hours on end.
I've got a lot to say about I'm Not There, but first some concessions–I like the movie's big gimmick, which is having six different actors play Dylan in different stages of his life. (I'm not sure this is more necessary for Dylan than it is for anybody else, though. Robert Zimmerman isn't the only dude who has gone through many guises in his life. In my own life there is Star Wars-obsessed Steve, OP-donning Steve, Mullet Steve, Bad Goatee Steve, Plasma-donating for weekend beer money Steve, and many more.) At any rate, I admire Haynes for his irreverent take on the moribund biopic genre, and for emulating the freewheeling, non-linear structure of a Dylan song for his big Dylan movie. And, at the very least, I'm Not There looks and sounds fabulous, with stunning cinematography by Ed Lachman and a soundtrack dominated by classic Dylan songs both famous and obscure (big ups for including "Blind Willie McTell").
I concede all that stuff; it's just that Haynes has nothing particularly interesting to say about Dylan's life or music. Rather, he's concerned with the cloudy Dylan "myth," a tired concept invented by rock critics after Dylan retreated from public view in the mid-'60s and endlessly ruminated over by drunken guys at college parties. Yes, Dylan lied shamelessly about his past in the press early in his career–it was part show biz subterfuge, part media parlor game. And he has changed his look and sound many times throughout his career, both to satisfy his wandering spirit and to keep the public interested. Contrary to what the Dylan myth-makers say, this does not make him unique; the same could be said of Ray Charles, Miles Davis, The Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Madonna or any other artist that stayed popular for several decades. What does make Dylan unique–aside from the fact that he's, you know, the great artist of the 20th century (yeah, I said it!)–is how his public persona has been turned into a Rorschach test. What people say about Dylan almost always says more about that person than Dylan himself. (As for Dylan, well, he's never been interested in discussing what he "means.")
For me a more trenchant dissection/celebration of the Dylan myth is the 2003 flopapalooza Masked And Anonymous. Like I'm Not There, Masked And Anonymous is a mess, a grab-bag of vignettes that don't so much connect as ease into each other. It's just as chaotic and pretentious as I'm Not There; it's probably not as well-made, but it's a lot funnier and wiser about how Dylan's fans focus more on the image in their own heads than the man himself. It's also more successful at capturing the rambling, mind-bending quality of a Dylan song (which means it also demands more of the viewer to just "go along with it"). Dylan plays Jack Fate, an old '60s rocker who gets let out of jail to perform a benefit concert set up by an unscrupulous promoter named Uncle Sweetheart (played by John Goodman in scenery-chewing Walter Sobchak mode). There's a lot going on in Masked And Anonymous that doesn't make a whole lot of sense: it's set in a post-apocalyptic future America dominated by a totalitarian leader who–if memory serves–may or may not be Dylan's father. As an actor Dylan is, shall we say, a little on the inexpressive side, but since Dylan hardly speaks at all it's not much of an issue. Instead, a group of eccentric characters (played by a great cast that includes Jeff Bridges, Jessica Lange, Luke Wilson, Mickey Rourke, and a hilariously loopy Val Kilmer) do the talking for him, often about him, while Dylan stares on impassively. This is most true of the scenes with Bridges (who is very un-Dude) as a journalist who lectures Fate on the many ways he has failed to live up to what he wanted him to be, rather than just talk to the man to find out what he thinks. Dylan, meanwhile, just stands there, looking slightly bored. (The ending of Masked And Anonymous–specifically the fate of the Bridges character–must have been at least a little cathartic for Dylan after suffering so many fools in the press over the years.)
I'm Not There is a courageous experiment, but it has a standard biopic problem–the actor(s) playing the subject are nowhere near as fascinating, multi-dimensional, or charismatic as the subject itself. The closer I'm Not There approximates the real Dylan, the worse it gets. I love Cate Blanchett, I think she's one of our finest actresses, but her scenes play like an unfunny Saturday Night Live parody of Don't Look Back. (Don't get me started on Christian Bale's weird, bolo-tie-wearin', Ratso Rizzo-esque Dylan.) Meanwhile, the real Bob Dylan is more accessible today than he has been in possibly 40 years. He still tours regularly with a crackerjack band, and he hosts a wonderful weekly radio show on XM. (The Bob Dylan fan site Expecting Rain has several links on where to download the shows.) Plus, with his warm and witty memoir Chronicles and the Martin Scorsese documentary No Direction Home, Dylan has shown more willingness to open up and reveal the relatively normal guy underneath all the B.S. that's been piled on top of him over the years. So, you can take Blanchett and Bale if you want. I'll stick with the real thing.
P.S. Our own Keith Phipps—who surely is smarter and has better taste than me—really liked I'm Not There.