Tuesday, January 1, 2008

I'm Not There

Let's start with what makes a popular biopic (that word I can't pronounce) of a popular musician, with Ray and Walk the Line our recent, obvious examples. First, the narrative should be straightforward, illustrating how the performer's enormous talent allowed him/her to rise from obscurity to fame, wealth, and acclaim, overcoming in the process whatever obstacles stand in his/her way. The narrative should not document a linear ascension from nothing, but rather, should document the many rises and falls (alcohol, drugs, women, prevailing bad attitude of the times , general bad attitude of our star) that the musician must endure through his career (although presented in a chronologically linear fashion).

A good biopic should make the music of the artist immediately approachable, even if you have never heard it before. The biopic should connect the music as directly possible with the person's life. You shouldn't need a lot of previous understanding of the music, or the person's life, or the cultural or social context in which the artist was making their art to appreciate the movie. You should be able to walk in to the movie, knowing fuck-all about the artist, and walk out two hours later humming the songs, with a greater appreciation for the artists struggles, and a clear idea how the artist's talent enabled him/her to overcome both personal and cultural turmoil to forever change the landscape of American music.

Todd Haynes' I'm Not There probably fails against that standard of a biopic. It's convoluted, full of inside jokes, abstract and non-linear in its narrative, and, of course, doesn't include a single character called Bob Dylan. So what.

First, let me suggest why I think I'm Not There succeeds as a movie, in its own right. It's funny. It sends up or celebrates with humor so many of Dylan's contemporary cultural touchpoints (Baez, the Beatles, Ginsberg, Pete Seeger at Newport, the fans, the fans, the fans) and is also wonderfully witty in reference to Dylan's life and music ("C'mon, play your early stuff!" Blanchett's Dylan taunts a crucified Jesus). It's visually appealing and stylized, and feels like it contains at least three different movies in it. It has at least one transcendent performance (Blanchett) and a handful of good ones (Bale, Marcus Carl Franklin, Bruce Greenwood, Charlotte Gainsbourg, even David Cross' Allen Ginsberg cameo is equal parts jubilantly weird and amusing). And while it may not explain Bob Dylan, his work or life, to the lay audience, I think it does a damn good job channeling it.

Now, if you have more than a passing familiarity with Dylan, life and music, I think I'm Not There is extremely rewarding. At a superficial level, the characterizations of the mythic events in Dylan's career (the self-mythologizing tramp from Minneapolis, Robert Zimmerman, the Greenwich Village folk scene, the visit to Woody Guthrie's deathbed, Newport in '65, the Don't Look Back UK tour where he was cheered through the acoustic half of his set and booed through the electric half, turning his back on the protest kids, the Woodstock years, the Christian years) are smart and funny, and when un-jumbled chronologically, surprisingly direct. The stylistic sending up of the Dylan eras and their attendant documentarians (isn't Julianne Moore's Baez great?) are dead-on, if a little too knowing. And the music, while wandering beyond just the recognizable "hits," provides great context to the narrative and stylistic elements of the movie.

Where I'm Not There really takes off, I think, is that it does, actually, get at some of the very important things about Bob Dylan, albeit well below the skin, and in that discomforting way where yesterday, today, and tomorrow are all rolled into one. Through the movie, you come to understand that Dylan, for being anointed the voice of his generation, was always an artist badly out of place in his time - from his personal founding myth as a rail-riding Socialist all the way through to his distancing himself from the turmoil of the Vietnam era in search of a family life and eventually a passing comfort in Christ.

The figurative Richard Gere scenes, which everyone can apparently do without, investigate perhaps the most interesting part of Dylan's career, when he turned away from his music, and for all pop culture knew, lived in as an outlaw, in the wilderness as America profoundly lost its innocence. The confrontational Dylan, wise too young, shines through in Ben Whishaw's performance, as well as Blanchett's, clearly anticipating the damaged relationship between artist and fame.

Even the most deeply anachronistic narrative threads, in my opinion, those showing the collapse of the personal and spiritual life of the extremely wealthy and famous Dylan (the Heath Ledger and Christian Christian Bale sequences) are insightful in appreciating that Dylan not only bore the expectations of a (younger) generation and the scrutiny of an older generation which could sense but not understand its own demise (scored to Blanchett mouthing Stephen Malkmus' version of "Ballad of a Thin Man"), but Dylan also bore that unholy burden of being rich and famous.

Let me also go ahead and say that, while the I'm Not There (Hendrix' "All Along the Watchtower," The original soundtrack isn't great end-t0-end, it has some pretty great tracks. It would be hard to argue that anything is an improvement over the Dylan originals, although Dylan has always been eminently coverable Byrds' "You Ain't Going Nowhere," The Band's "Tears of Rage," and "I Shall Be Released," George Harrison's "If Not For You," to name just a few where the cover competes with the original). Perhaps the Calexico-backed "Goin' to Acapulco" by Jim James and "Yankee" by Willie Nelson join those ranks. And, of course, I'm partial to the Sonic Youth, Malkmus, and YLT stuff... so, thanks, Todd Haynes. Great job on the movie and the music.

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