Christian Bale, Marcus Carl Franklin, Heath Ledger, Cate Blanchett, Richard Gere and Ben Whishaw, with Kris Kristofferson, Charlotte Gainsbourg, David Cross, Julianne Moore, Bruce Greenwood and Michelle Williams.
A biography of the iconic musician Bob Dylan portrayed by five different personas over the course of his early career.
That about says it, I reckon.
Virtually all music collectors have a Dylan story, namely the first time they laid ears on the man. Such geeks wax rhapsodic about how the man’s music both changed their lives as well as the course of modern music. Others get into your face about your Dylan-esque ignorance and right there and then give an almost mathematical deconstruction of what a musical philistine, ignoramus and overall weenie you are. All the while bolting a digital pair of Skullcandy phones to your head so Bringing It All Back Home can blast some sense into you. Thanks to wi-fi, everywhere.
Didn’t happen that way for me. My tale is much more plain. Thus:
Ain’t it fun when you happen upon a surprise? Like a wadded up fiver in your recently laundered jeans, or finding a shortcut shaving a good chunk of time off your commute, or uncovering what’s actually in the house dressing? Unlike being flogged by some mouth-breather with the complete Biograph on Edison coils, I bumbled onto Dylan by cleaning out a closet. A surprise, but not a valued one at first. I was just looking for my boots.
It was a boring snowy day. Probably a Saturday, since I wasn’t in school. Then again it might’ve been a snow day, but at any rate I was bored and stuck inside until I found those damned boots. Was going to head off into the storm to Blockbuster for a video fix. That’s right, back in the day we had to go to the store to score a fresh movie, and if you had to do that errand during winter, it required proper footwear (especially since the ‘rents refused to let your surly teenaged ass drive in such sh*t weather). Footwear I could not find.
In our house we had two hall closets, one for mom and dad’s stuff, the other for not mom and dad’s stuff. There must’ve been a recent shuffling I wasn’t aware of and found the missing boots in the grown up closet. I had to get on my hands and knees to claim my quarry, buried behind long coats, forgotten boxes of whatnot and mittens—endless mittens. I stumbled upon my dad’s old record collection in a milk crate. It wasn’t much to crow about, one milk crate. This was the early 90s, and that proto vinyl revival was percolating. I was aware of this thing, this “revival” with me the burgeoning audiophile. I had built an already righteous CD library, but to call this “new” interest in records a revival flummoxed me. There was still a healthy LP rack or two at my local music store so to claim some revo was happening on the fringes struck me as bullsh*t. But I was an insecure teen and was quick to latch onto whatever unique trend set me apart from the lemmings. That and I had fond memories of dicking around with the man’s turntable as a spit of a youth, which was most likely the real reason I began to rifle through the crate. Boots and Die Hard 2 soon forgotten.
It was an eclectic stack of wax. I recalled fumbling through them as a little kid, curious about the album cover art and who these singers were. Truth be told I was more entranced by Ella Jenkins and Pooh And The Honey Tree as twin pinnacles of musical triumph. I had no clue, nor wanted one, as to whom Chuck Mangione was. Still shouldn’t.
As a teen I was little more versed in some of the platters in my dad’s milk crate. Neil Diamond Gold, a greatest hits thing. Barbara Streisand. A lot of Barbara Streisand. Too much Streisand (always felt the woman was a better actress than singer, but that’s not saying much. That’s not saying anything). Judy Collins. John Denver. Simon and Garfunkel. The Mamas & The Papas. Peter, Paul & Mary (my dad was big into folk music back in his youth). The Rolling Stones’ Out Of Our Heads (the album featuring some little ditty called “Satisfaction.” Perhaps you’ve heard it). More Streisand. Santana (hey…). Bob Dylan’s Blonde On Blonde. Highway 61 Revisited, Nashville Skyline and the man’s Greatest Hits, Vol 2.
At the time I was into singer/songwriters. Elton John, Billy Joel, James Taylor, U2 and the like. I’d heard of Dylan. Knew his big hits from the 60s. Casual acquaintance. I guess thanks to the aforementioned faux vinyl revival, but more likely it was just curiosity that dragged that crate out into the sunlight for the first time since whenever. Curiosity and a need to make better dinners for my family.
This will make sense. Take my hand and don’t look down.
My discovery of the forgotten LPs coincided with a sh*tty winter and a need to counteract even sh*ttier dinners. That winter was most likely the gateway drug into my culinary career. You can only boil hot dogs so many ways. Being cooped up in the house during those cold weeks, and tiring of grilled cheese with Campbell’s tomato soup (condensed for your pleasure), I took to task making actual meals with actual ingredients. That winter had a flu epidemic paired with such subzero temps so that school was closed for almost two weeks. So me stuck at home with all comics exhausted, all the Nintendo my eyes would take and my video library gone over twice (hence the fateful non-trip to the video store) I took to combating boredom via cooking. Don’t ask my why or how.
I wanted to make dinner all special like. Use the dining room rather than the breakfast nook. Actually set the table instead of the usual fork throwing. Even have some background music. I found the records, noodled with the neglected turntable to get it up and running again and reconnected the speakers that were thought broken but just needed a little tweaking. Voila. Like something out of a restaurant. Not a grilled cheese to be found.
However before my little gastronomical ploy to shake off the winter blues went into effect I had to go and actually listen to my newfound music cache. The whole dinner music thing didn’t come to be in a vacuum. In hindsight, rummaging through those records is what most likely got my head a-churnin’ to play midwinter Wolfgang Puck.
I rifled through the collection. Some gems in there, although I wasn’t sure of it at the time. Without going into the laundry list there were two artists that immediately commanded my teenaged attention. One was Santana. My dad had their first album. Well, it was more like he had his brother’s album. Goodness knows how it got in that lot, but I’m forever grateful it did. Carlos Santana is my guitar god. ‘Nuff said.
The other albums of note—surprise—were the Dylan records. The aforementioned Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde On Blonde and Nashville Skyline. All classics by any account, but I didn’t know that then. I was a Dylan nimbob and knew next to nothing about the man’s music save some passing aquaintence with “Blowin’ In The Wind” and/or “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” The second one thanks to Simon and Garfunkel, to which I thought it was their original. Like I said, nimbob.
Dad also had a well worn copy of Dylan’s Greatest Hits, Vol 2. I figured it was a good enough place to start (tried Nashville Skyline first, mostly due to Dylan’s smiling face on the cover. Didn’t do it for me). A greatest hits comp is almost always a safe bet for the neophyte, which blissfully ignorant was I. So I pulled out the first record (it was a double album), plunked it onto the turntable, adjusted the needle and listened.
I was intrigued.
I didn’t outright like Dylan’s songs, but you ever happen on a surprise? Forgive the schmaltz, but my first few exposures to Dylan were akin to the scene in Mr Holland’s Opus where Richard Dreyfuss recalls the first time he heard Coltrane. Didn’t get it, so he played it again and again until he couldn’t not stop playing it. Yeah, that we me with Greatest Hits 2. I was surprised by the songs’ eclecticism. The man could barely sing, but how it sounded in context didn’t matter. I didn’t get Dylan outright, but I knew I was listening to something different, something vital. And my fave Dylan song is “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” Thank Vol 2 for that.
So yeah, the backdrop for several of the dinners I threw together was Santana’s debut and Dylan’s second greatest hits comp. I was excited about spinning these records almost as much as inflicting my warped idea of burgundy beef on the ‘rents and sibs.
Their reaction to dinner was similar to my musical selections: indifference. Well, patience would be a better word. It came to pass that for me those nightly winter meals became less about gustatory satisfaction and more about assailing my family with my newfound discovery of Bob Dylan. But they did get tired of Vol 2 on endless rotation. My dad in particular, which baffled me because that was his album from back when he was my age then. No matter. It was an insular winter, and I got increasingly more intimate with the record player. Vol 2 held sway over me, but I eventually branched out to Highway 61. When I first heard “Like A Rolling Stone” all bets were off. And f*ck all anything about some alleged vinyl resurgence.
So what’s the point of all this? None really. Just a passing pertinence to this week’s flick, I’m Not There. The movie’s supposed to be about how Bob Dylan’s influence can go far beyond his music. Not sure about that. All I know about my connection to the man and his music went further than my unearthed record collection, but not so deep down I’d pummel the Dylan deprived for, well, being Dylan deprived. Nope. My possible snobbery was nil. It was all about that surprise brought about lost boots and the fire being fanned by snow and a burning need to get away from meatloaf for a time. A pretty mild way to get into one of the preeminent musicians of the 20th Century (and still going strong into the 21st).
So that’s my Dylan story. Feel free to add to it whatever legacy you wish to hear.
Jack Rollins (Bale). He’s the newest rising star in New York’s burgeoning folk music scene. He’s not like other performers. Where interpretation is more valued than original material from such modern day troubadours, Rollins’ delivery is something…different. His songs are of a social and political nature, but how he comes across therein lies the difference. His style is raw, wounded, pleading and far from the usual rallying cry for change delivered by his peers. The man has something to say, and clearly has something on his mind. And what he has on his mind comes across as both a mirror and pointed finger. The show will go on as long as it has to. Needs to.
Woody (Franklin). Not his real name. Doesn’t need one. The identity you’re given at the outset doesn’t mean you’re that person. Woody took his name as a tribute to his musical hero, legendary folk singer Woody Guthrie. This machine kills fascists. That’s what Guthrie scrawled on his guitar, and also what Woody scrawled on his guitar case. With a head full of ideas that are driving him insane, Woody hits the road, rides the rails west, hoping to become the next big thing. He spews lies and dreams with equal aplomb. He knows exactly what his wants: to be a folk singer. But Woody doesn’t know why. Yet.
Robbie Clark (Ledger). An up and coming actor. Well, that’s not quite true. Robbie’s already established himself as your typical pretty face, screen icon. He’s wants more than that, a little more edge. Serious roles. He gets one in the shape of Grain Of Sand, a biopic encapsulating the life and times of rebel folk singer Jack Rollins. It’s the role that’ll escalate him from mere pretty face to serious actor. It’s also the role that lets Claire (Gainsbourg) into his life. She’s an artist, and fast finds her muse in Robbie. But later she finds her muse is less Robbie and more Jack. That’s not quite right. Between both of them acting seems to be the only reality they share. Image and mock truth.
Jude Quinn (Blanchett). He was the darling folk artist of the scene. But as an artist—a musician especially—one must evolve, push oneself’s creative boundaries. Which is why at a high profile New England folk fest he plugs in and cranks the amps to 11. The audience—his soon-to-be former fans—doesn’t take kindly to him going electric. They f*cking hate it, and call him out as a judas and sell-out. Quinn’s been such a guy with the hot button for so long his chasing his muse has gotten not only the folk scene but the media in general in a furor. Esteemed TV personality Keenan Jones (Greenwood) grills Quinn over a series of interviews as to what gives Jude the right to do whatever he pleases with his music. Did he ever consider his fans? Is he “selling out?” Is all this folderol nothing more than a demented PR stunt? Quinn says yes and no to all of this. Maybe more of his mystique would’ve come to light if he didn’t bite it in a motorcycle crash.
Billy McCarty (Gere). Retired from the outlaw trade. All he wants is a quiet, normal life, miles away from his callow youth and moniker. Living in Riddle, MO Billy’s become the sort of de facto guru of Riddle, in tune to the townsfolk’s wants as they are to his sketchy past. Presently however, Riddle’s in a pickle. Corrupt commissioner Pat Garrett (Greenwood) has sold over the town so a new-fangled highway can come a-tearin’ through, demolishing Riddle in the process. When Billy catches wind of his adopted family’s plight (as well as stories of suicides), against all sense Billy confronts Garrett. His face is not easily forgotten, as Garrett recognizes his old nemesis and runs the man out of town on a rail. Rails. With some help from the townsfolk, Billy hops a train and rides off to lands afar, to realign his identity once more. Good thing he found a guitar to keep himself occupied for the long trip ahead to nowhere.
Arthur Rimbaud (Whishaw). Not his real name, but they don’t have to know that. What kind of government subcommittee is this? Why was his brought in? Did he break some law? Just because he has this expansive knowledge on this Bob Dylan guy doesn’t make him a criminal. Try explaining that to these jokers. They don’t know what’s happening, do they?
Do they, Mr Jones…?
For those few who care, sorry it took so long for this installment to come to fruition. The delay was due to multiple factors. Xmas time. Insane work schedule. A visit to the dentist. Traffic. Alien invasion. Alien dentists. Whatever works. The biggest impasse however was how intractable, dense, polyphonic and utterly weird I’m Not There turned out to be.
I loved the thing and wanted to do its prostate examination justice. Or try to. Now cough.
I know. I’ve been making a bad habit of showing my hand too often at RIORI lately. I’m also probably jinxing myself by saying this but I’ve pretty lucky with the past few installments. Had a small streak with mediocre movies that turned out to be pretty good. I’m Not There is no exception, regardless of my Dylan fandom and the pleasant memories his albums evoke. This film was engaging, weird and unique. Uniquely unique. It was also the most mutated biopic I’ve ever been audience to, and I really haven’t seen many biopics. But I’m Not There…um, is one of them. And Christ, what a corker it was.
But first and as always I gotta justify how an award-winning, critically acclaimed movie about a towering figure in folk, rock, blues and poetry (not to mention nakedly reluctantly Nobel Prize winner) earns The Standard’s stamp. It’s a kind of a pretzel logic here, and a total judgment call (as is my wont), but I think I figured out some sort of skewed way of wedging There into the questionable camp of flicks that probably shouldn’t be lurking around these neck of the woods. Might be a Marvel movie ’round the bend waiting to strike. Excelsior!
Ahem. In simpler terms, I’m gonna stretch it.
Not by active choice either. There is a sh*t-ton of ground to cover here with There, and I got all exhaustive like. Of the fairest warning, this must be the longest installment here at RIORI ever. Ever. All the Dylan asides would fill a boxcar. So if you durst tread further be warned. Beyond this point be dragons, folk music and Cate Blanchett in drag. Enjoy!
Todd Haynes isn’t what you’d call a name director. He’s a critical darling, and almost always his muse puts him into a descent of offbeat and weird projects, most of which only the critics see. His sh*t don’t make a lotta ducats at the box office. Rentals and downloads yes, but that what creates film cultiness and not marketability. Just because the man’s CV consists of the weird and wild doesn’t make him an odd duck though. Wes Anderson, Werner Herzog and even everyone’s favorite hack Quentin Tarantino all delve into the left-of-center and quirky, most with amazing returns at the multiplex. Haynes ain’t like that. Like I said he’s not a name. Merely a curiosity, which is probably why his films are often doomed to just cult status. That or something a snooty film freak would beat your ignorant ass over the head with like so many scratchy Bob Dylan LPs.
Nope. Haynes’ name and cachet had very little to do with There becoming a hit. A modest hit, mind you and aimed at a very cagey, dedicated crowd. Face it, now matter how epic Dylan’s career has been he’s still an acquired taste (not unlike Haynes’ filmography). I recall how my freshman year roomie mocked both Dylan and my fandom with a very unflattering rendition of the man’s snarly growl. Then again all my roommate listened to was Nine Inch Nails, Tori Amos and Nine Inch Nails. There’s no accounting for taste as they say.
Based on my research (which is totally biased and usually consists of smacking Wikipedia around while nursing two or nine beers), taste wasn’t much on the mind of the folks who pulverized the theaters to get a visually stimulating Dylan fix. No. Argument was that it was tragedy that brought people into seeing There, not so much the polyphonic biopic’s…whatever.
There was the first movie featuring the late, lamented Heath Ledger. True, Ledger was gone when The Dark Knight dropped, but There was kind of his Nirvana Unplugged In New York (an aside: why do esteemed entertainers’ popularity skyrocket after their untimely death? Is it a sort of last gasp—so to speak—of vicariously walking alongside an idol? Or just a jolt to the main vein realizing there’s no more Dean, Cobain or Ledger and a need to prolong the magic? Or maybe some people are just morose). It was the official last time the fans and the curious could watch Ledger in action. A lot of critics claimed that Ledger’s passing had some sway with the film’s attendance, which may have elevated this curiosity to rake in the dough it did (beyond belief). Jaded, I know. So explain then Nirvana’s meager Sub Pop catalog (one and one-half albums) breaking their bank on April 6, 1994.
*crickets and seething*
Simply put, There wouldn’t performed as well if Heath were still alive. Cynical? Sure. Accurate? Possibly. Crass? Duh.
Now we meet our quandary. Did There fare better than it should’ve due to America’s morbid fascination with the curse of 27 or was it just a darn good film? I’m crossing my fingers, putting the cynicism aside for a nanosecond and leaning towards the latter.
Cards. Chest. Fold. Remember?
Anyway, to the matter at hand: the film. Nearly forgot the thing. Now you don’t have to be a Dylan scholar to appreciate this movie, but it sure as hell helps. The minutiae There gets into is of course reflective of Dylan’s early career, so knowing a thing or three about the man helps the average joes and janes appreciate the story ever more. In truth, the bulk of the film focuses on pivotal moments that ultimately result in the man’s mythos, not the trivia that salivating Dylan-philes love to beat you over the head with. Again and again. There‘s about tentpoles supporting a very wide canvas. And a lot of that canvas was cut with a lot of holes. That’s where “creative license” comes in, therefore taking an audience through the jungle isn’t nearly as entertaining as bringing the jungle to their back stoop. With a glass of wine and a cigarette.
What I’m sayin’ is that the best part about waiting on a gift is the actual delivery, and best thing about There‘s delivery is how cagey Haynes is in constructing the narrative. I’m not talking about the alternate realties and intertwining storylines a la Dark City and/or Pulp Fiction (which is essential, as well as engaging and mad confusing at times. Often, actually). It’s how carefully the Dylan mythos skirts the “Dylan Mythos.” Like I said many times, There is not for the casually curious, but neither is it for your everyday, run-of-the-mill, raving Dylan loon. No. This movie is for people that have nary a blue f*ck about who Bob Dylan is, don’t care and found themselves in the theatre for Heath’s passing, a recommendation from a friend who digs Dylan’s albums, or the aforementioned maniacs (as you may have figured, these dicks are a key target of mine) the movie is, it’s not friendly, immediately accessible and just plain weird. Dylan sure had a mythos. He’s got a lot of nutty and equally poignant tales—real and/or imagined—to draw from, apart from him just cutting records. Haynes’ steers clear of all that, or at least covers the chapters in a hazy, gauzy quality, blurred at the corners. In simpler terms he makes the audience rub its eyes and go, “Huh? Hey…” Haynes plucks “key” moments from Dylan’s early career and warps them into this patchwork quilt as well as collage. At first glance, no matter how disarming (and that is a strange adjective to apply to this kooky, non-linear tale about a protean musician who’s had more legends than facts to ponder), There is both a challenge to laypeople and dedicated fans alike.
And now Side B.
It’s not just the staggering, wonky, disjointed, essential editing I’ve ever scene (under or over the influence). Again, it’s Haynes at work, playing with his toys and rewriting history, or maybe just chronicling it in a way that only fans will get. When I say “get” I don’t mean for a lot of dorks to nod their collective heads to and mumble, “Yeah, that was it.” No. There was designed to confuse and make you think—perhaps reconsider—about how Dylan in the collective, media consciousness twice. It’s pretty daring to direct a movie about a prominent musician that doesn’t regard the subject matter in solid form. The Bale/Franklin/Ledger/Blanchett/Gere/Whishaw amalgam is but a mirror, and what the crowd wishes to see or demands to see.
In other words, Haynes is trolling us. A very creative, smart troll, but still what’s it all trip-trapping all over the bridge for?
To mess with us in a giddy fanboy way that tickles as much as it pisses us off (not unlike Dylan’s muse). This is fun, BTW, despite the plastic, non-linear story structure. Such directing is sure as sh*t absorbing, and far less enraging than Haynes’ last foray into a musician’s “biography.” A decade prior to There Haynes inflicted Velvet Goldmine on an unwitting audience who loved Bowie and Ewan MacGregor in equal portions (and most, like me, found the whole gob pissy and needlessly obtuse). For those not in the know Velvet was a fabricated documentary/biopic covering the life and times of a Bowie-clone rocker and the rock journalist peeling back the onion of the man’s life (the scribbler was portrayed by Bale, so at least one person knew what they were in for when they set sailed on the SS Planet Waves). It was a frustrating film, even you knew nothing about the glam rock scene back in early-70s England (and had a fleeting desire to witness MacGregor as an Iggy Pop clone flap his d*ck around on stage. No, really). It had the proto-air of what There succeeded in doing: disjointed chapters depicting the life and times of an important musician through both the director’s eyes and the audiences’s on the same level.
Fortunately, There is far less oblique than Goldmine (with a lot less c*ck. Sorry, ladies). Despite its byzantine structure There is—for real—more accessible than most rock biopics. I know I was playing footsie with this concept before, but There isn’t a movie with an easy message to pin down. If there’s a message at all. I think Haynes was just having fun f*cking around with his audience offering one Dylan story and pulling a bait-and-switch. Those who went along with the ruse sat there and drank it in. The rest just missed Heath.
At its core, There is a character study, studied over by multiple characters. All Dylan, all different and yet all the same. Regardless of the settings and atmospherics (which are all period spot-on no matter what period), we’re watching the rise and sunset of a character, if not a mere characterization of a person who made a life of being endlessly creative and endlessly difficult. Small wonder why Haynes chose the device he did to tell Dylan’s tales. I mean, within the first seven years of his career, Dylan jumped many fences and crossed many lines (including ones he drew in the first place). So since, at heart, There is indeed a character study then the bulk of this winding way should rest on our cast, right? So drawing from the synopsis, let’s break the story down brick by brick.
Bale worked with Haynes before, remember? The fanboy cum rock journalist in Goldmine. Might explain why Bale was the actor most at ease with his Dylan cipher. Haynes’ work can get screwy, messing with timelines and blurring the corners between what actually happened and what should have actually happened. Bale’s laid back, slouching representation of Dylan’s early busking years comes across as both vulnerable and piss-and-vinegar. Jack Rollins is new to the City’s folk scene, but is already well adept in what being outwardly vocal is all about; having a message and somehow finding a way to force it to the surface. I swear, I think I only saw Bale life his head maybe three times over the course of his chapters. Rollins was a man retreating into his own skin and yet at the same time screaming for relevance. A semi-tragic figure, bleeding sympathy, Bale’s Rollins might’ve crashed and burned as a caricature of Dylan, but I attest to his Haynes’ training (and maybe them Batman films), the guy held up damn fine, and when Rollins’ post folkie career ended, the circle closed beautifully in a way most nabobs would only deem as tacky. Like Pete Seeger might’ve once said.
Franklin as “Woody.” He was a wild card (one of two really). It’s tough with a “serious” movie—especially a biography—to have the damn kid sit still, read his lines and follow his paces without eating up precious, expensive studio time by acting like a damned, precocious kid. This is the stuff of Ritalin’s dreams. But Franklin managed to hold his own (barely) as the ideal of Dylan’s eyes-wide-open pursuit as the next big thing in folk music before folk music was big. Anyone who knows anyone knows that Dylan was probably the biggest Woody Guthrie fanboy this side of the New York Islands. A major inspiration. Our Woody may serve as the embodiment/inspiration avatar for young, naive Dylan, but for our purposes he’s just full of sh*t. Sure, he can sing, play guitar and spin yarns about eminent fame and fortune as the next runaway kid spinning yarns about fame and fortune, but at heart Woody knows he’s full of sh*t. All he’s really trying to do is escape. Escape his crappy home and going nowhere existence. Life an imaginary life of a hobo, traveling troubadour with a message to share and a goal to reach and a life to escape.
Franklin toes the line very carefully between precocious and obnoxious. Not an easy balance. He’s supposed to represent Dylan in his salad days (that whole Guthrie adoration with the “This machine kills fascists” saw on Woody’s guitar case speaks volumes, especially since the real Guthrie had that scrawled on his actual axe. A shade more proactive). All wide-eyed and needing to shake the Zimmerman family name back in Hibbing, MN like a bad case of fleas. Franklin shines as the hobo, still sweet but painfully vulnerable. Like I intimated, Woody’s all about escaping, especially himself. Franklin impresses with his keen dichotomy of scared kid and outgoing not-there-yet adult. The kid can sing, he can play guitar and he can shoot the bull with the best/worst of them. Is he convincing? Yes, and that follows acting and mission both. The scene where “Woody” gets busted as a runaway speaks volumes alone.
The tough part about getting a kid to act as an avatar for an adult—especially a famous, vilified adult (icon)—is to get the kid to “get it.” Franklin must’ve been barely ten when he got slated as Robert Allen the wandering Woody Guthrie acolyte minstrel. The wounded confidence he dragged along was admirable, interesting. Here’s a kid who was perilously close to Culkin territory. Instead he turned cute into troubling. Sure, at some point in our youth we’d all love to run away and join the circus. Franklin’s Woody is the circus, and with precious little treacle sticking to anything. The kid’s slick and slippery, and once you think you’ve figured out his MO (which may or may not be miles from becoming a famous folk singer), he turns on you. Well, rather the writers did. But still, with Franklin as our guide young Dylan became all the more palpable. Not bad for some snot-nosed whelp.
The late Ledger. The pinion. Maybe the reason that There got more press than it may have earned. Now I’m not gonna deny that Ledger was a talented actor who over a relatively short career evolved from a pretty face to a grotesque, Oscar-winnig face. That and a shepherd having a crisis with his sexuality, having a tough time looking that face in the mirror. Yeah, so from 10 Things I Hate About You to Brokeback Mountain, Ledger sharpened his claws right quick, and became a swift and beloved cinema icon.
Which is rather appropriate, if not prescient that his portrayal of the hard-nosed—yet with a fluffy, pretty boy CV—Robbie Clark (a semi-tragic figure within his own career). Clark represents Dylan in his reluctant fame phase. Clark’s career prior to Grain Of Sand is akin to Dylan’s post-folkie route. Here we get introspection of a reluctant kind. Clark is assured in his talent, and now has a project to prove his mettle. Sure, the talent’s intact, but the youthful recklessness is not. Nothing more potent for implosion than a fragile ego paired with a need to please, even (if not especially) if only for yourself.
Ledger’s Clark/Dylan persona cleanly demonstrated not only Heath’s gradually, workaday climb from pretty face to serious actor with mass appeal still in check. Clark’s career follows the same track, mirroring Dylan’s post The Times They Are A-Changin’ albums; your fans want you to stretch (only on their terms. Refer to the Jude Quinn segment…later), to see more talent down deep. Casting Ledger as Clark was a stroke of brilliance, and not just for his rugged, postmodern James Dean, self-effacing (at first) performance. The guy had quite a bit to draw from and plunk at the table.
The Clark chapter had many parallels not only with Dylan’s nascent fame, but also Ledger’s career in microcosm. Wouldn’t be surprised if There‘s casting director enlisted Ledger not just for his acting chops but also the slow burn tumult of his private life. And when you’re a big deal star—being it movie or music—it gets harder and harder to keep one apart from the other, even though there is always spillage. Good thing social media didn’t exist when Dylan was just on his feet. Would’ve been burned at the stake for the stunt he pulled at Newport (again, Quinn segment…still later).
And it’s virtually impossible if you’re a fan of either artist to sniff out the trouble waiting around the corner with Clark. There are indeed parallels (perhaps too many to be close for comfort) with not only Dylan’s life at that point but Ledger’s also. Granted each chapter of There is following a continuum, just not in a linear progression. We bounce back and forth between Robbie’s life along with the rest of the players, but thanks to/blame the timing, what starts Robbie’s story as an innocent courting of Claire devolves into so much fragility and alienation that ultimately undoes the relationship.
Gainesbourg was a find, despite being established. I know nothing about the beginning, flowering, decaying, undoing of Dylan’s marriage to his wife, Sara (bet it wasn’t fun), but Gainesbourg’s Claire was great channeling the almost cliched willowy artiste trying to make her mark in The Big City. Clark by extension was too. Sure, everything starts all puppies dogs and ice cream like, but with the lure of stardom comes the fractures. Who do you truly value? Your loved ones? Your agent? You? One can only wonder again with the casting director’s choice that Ledger’s very public, very ugly separation from Michelle Williams might’ve had a hand in getting him the part, as well as stoking the fire of a greedy, fan audience. Maybe, then again Ledger’s and William’s couple hood had unraveled during the filming of Brokeback Mountain. You know, the high profile gay love pic which had Ledger play against Williams as his disassociated wife (and was it a coinkydink that Williams floated around this merry-go-round)? Synchronicity. That real life/behind the scenes/reflective narrative seems a tad too juicy to be coincidence.
Which is why we can thank Claire. Gainsbrough really was a find. Although There somewhat descends into the rock and roll cliche of fame and hard-living paired against ignoring personal relationships and loved ones (that and our avatar quickly becomes mister good time charlie too fast, too soon), Claire keeps it aloft and in perspective. C’mon, even if you’re not a Dylan scholar, you’re well-versed in the whole rise and fall of fame bullsh*t ride. Even with the angular There, you see it coming light-years away. Claire’s eventual brittleness after the time with Robbie—the rising star, raising a family, her stagnant art career, etc—is us, the audience, witnessing promise and power quickly but still politely descend into dysfunction. All the while Gainsbrough is our charioteer. Sure, the whole Clark chapter is Ledger’s all the way, but you need to have a vital foil to balance (or tip) the scales. Our Claire is Patti Smith minus the balls, recording career and a demand to fully grasp the collapse of everything as Robbie the star becomes Robbie the actor. Such invulnerability demands a chink in the armor, so thank you Gainsbourg.
A fond farewell to Heath, who left us like too many talented people: far too soon.
And now for something completely different. The cherry on the sundae, perhaps a bigger scoop (ha!) than Ledger’s swansong: Cate Blanchett as Electric Dylan (and if that ain’t a band name scooped up by now, get on it and you’re welcome to it). Kinda seen as a gimmick at the time, even ‘tho Blanchett has always been an adventurous actress. I played the most prominent Queen in England’s history, so it’s only natural I want to play a prominent rock star (even if it means taping up my breasts)! Right, the novelty of Cate playing a man doubtless teased the crowds, if only for the humorous reasons. But beyond the winking, Cate’s “Jude Quinn” was the most Dylan of all the chronicles tackled in There.
A technical thing, and I know it’s the first one here. Probably the only one that arrested my attention in There, regardless of all the warping of space and time. For the duration of the movie, I loved the lighting techniques. At least two thirds of There was shot in rich black and white, and the argument could be made to say this gave the film a historical context. That’s odd though, considering the way-back machine set for Woody’s and Billy’s past lives are shot in vibrant color. Not sure exactly what this indicates, but I doubt it was all a creative whim.
Quinn’s chapter is Richard Lester in reverse. If you ever saw A Hard Day’s Night with the Fab Four running riot through Swingin’ London, then you get the idea. Lester is kinetic, urgent and almost breakneck in his style (check out at least one half of Superman II. At least that). There is a rhythm, a pulse, a need to get the message across ASAP with verve. With Quinn, Haynes’ style reflects Lester’s need for info dump, but everything here moves almost at a languid, if not cautionary pace. No less urgent than Lester, but there’s quite an air of bitterness, desperation and mean-spirits floating through Quinn’s world. Whatever for? Let’s meet him, shall we?
Our intro to Quinn is to he and his bandmates opening fire on an unwitting crowd at a New England folk concert. Literally as well as metaphorically. Drawing from the pissed off reaction of folkies at Dylan’s electric performance at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, to say the hippie dippies were unthrilled by Dylan’s new direction is akin to referring to the Arctic as somewhat chilly. They claimed he sold out. Pete Seeger was in agony. Cats and dogs living together. Mass hysteria!
Kinda what Quinn was aiming at. Now we arrive at the “voice of a generation” chapter of Dylan’s life, and Cate jumps in with both feet. Once you get beyond he’s a she, the opposite befalls you. Quinn is Dylan in the hot seat, and under the scrutiny of the mass media, this once folkie troubadour gone unabashed rocker. Brash and outspoken, smartass and well aware he has the world in the palm of his hand, Quinn conducts himself as him, not what his vast flock deems him to be. In other words, freeing himself from the trappings (nay, moorings) of his early career.
Blanchett pours it on. Her Quinn is cocky, smarmy and bleeding edge rock star persona incarnate. The Quinn chapter is the closest thing approaching linear in There‘s execution. It’s almost as if Haynes had a real message to broadcast with Cate, whatever that message was. What I walked away with was a tale of freeing yourself from…yourself. The underpinning of the Quinn chapter is our anti-hero slinking in and out of what the media expects. Blanchett is delightful in this environment, almost unlikeable but still engaging enough that you wish to devour what comes next in his/her story, regardless of what a dick Quinn is.
And Blanchett, vagina or not, is a dick. Like the jocky guy you get shoved next to at a beer bust, Quinn cannot help but smear his accomplishments (true or otherwise) all up on you. I’m so special because others tell me that. My talent is secondary, despite the fact it got me all these lackeys. It’s quick to see that Quinn’s surgical bluster is all a ruse to keeping what was once just that. Blanchett is both cocky and dodgy as Quinn. An anti-hero vibe. You want to like this guy, even as a casual fan, but Cate’s so obtuse, so snotty, so much like Brian Slade from Haynes’ Goldmine, he wants—needs—everyone to question his MO. After enjoying watching Cate shuck and jive, being unpredictable was the true motive. That and Quinn evading his modest, very uncool past. Cate was Dylan as far as I was concerned for There. She won an award after all. Not all judges are stodgy. Well, maybe Judge Judy, but she probably never owned a copy of Self Portrait. Nor should you. Moving on!
The “Billy the Kid” segment of There was the most left field, even more so than Woody’s adventures. You’d be hard-pressed as a Dylan fan to not catch the connection to the man’s soundtrack for the the movie Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid here, and maybe moreover the aftermath of Dylan’s mysterious motorcycle accident. That’s the guts of this chapter, and what an odd one it is, almost totally removed from the rest of the movie “proper.”
Richard Gere (surprisingly well-casted) appears as Billy “The Kid” McCarty, though do to his age no one calls him a kid anymore, let alone anything from his mischievous past. No. Billy is a recluse, stationed in nowhere and a local benefactor to everyone, still he’s just trying to escape and shed some skin.
Story goes that Dylan cracked up his ride and suffered some nasty injuries riding around in his adopted hometown of Woodstock, NY. Since the aftermath of the accident was so hush-hush, people got to figuring the whole schmeer was just a stunt to get Dylan out of the limelight for a time. Plunking our next to last chapter avatar in the Old West works well based on this urban legend. And Gere surprised me as Billy. He’s always had a laid back demeanor, teetering on reserved. From American Gigilo to Pretty Woman to even The Mothman Prophecies, Gere is a cool character and often rather far from losing his composure even when he’s being malevolent (think Internal Affairs).
His Billy was the only noble character in this game of pawns. Gere may have played the recluse, but his performance was sterling as the retired outlaw. He hasn’t quite recovered from the life, still has flashbacks about his former life and times. He does however a (newly found) serene nature about him after getting away from it all. The motorcycle analogy is wafer thin here—especially if one considers the “riding a horse” metaphor—but it works. It works as long as Gere keeps a gentle distance from his surroundings and just tries to stay in the background. Until his hand is forced.
Yeah, this is indeed a naked metaphor for Dylan’s life and times in long ago Woodstock. The reputation, the constant spotlight, the need to escape. Hell even the injuries are metaphor. In hindsight, the Billy chapter might be the most obvious parallel to Dylan’s life, even more than the on the nose take with Quinn. Ignoring the Wild West environ, Dylan as Billy brings the past/present Dylan into focus with the last episode (or at most the denouement) of the man’s early career. He had his whirlwind in a small length of time, and the legend is secure no matter what comes next. Like Billy the Kid.
Lastly and finally of this major character study via wild, disjointed biography we have Arthur as Rimbaud as what young Dylan pursued as Whishaw. Not much to say here really. Ben’s appearances felt more like bookmarks than part of the story proper (whatever it was). He’s the voice of the anti-establishment, the rebellious youth culture of the 60s and ultimately the foil of the real life Dylan. Whishaw’s delivery is punky, snotty and presages the middle finger Quinn gives the world later down the pike. What does the old men in grey suits know? Mr Jones and alla dat. Ben’s attitude is what justifies his appearance here. The wiry, “you don’t get it” bravado oozes from him like smoke (all those cigarettes help somewhat), and his almost desperate laments echo Dylan’s protest songs. Just because his brief interludes seem throwaway, it doesn’t lessen the stories impact any less. They’re more like a moment to catch your breath while Dylan’s lyrics seep through. Hell, Whishaw’s bits were the most linear of There‘s whole winding journey. Like I said, breathe.
I know, I know. This installment devolved into less of a review and more of a term paper. Sorry and whatever. Just because I got a little (all right, very) dense with There doesn’t mean the flick was all terse and intractable. Quite the other thing. Haynes’ vision was wild and disorienting, true, but that made for no less an engaging flick. It was hard to nail down what exactly Haynes’ vision was. Was it a fantasy? A biopic? A tribute to Dylan or a ironic screed against the man, the myth and the legend? Probably all of these and none. Like I said miles ago you don’t have to be a Dylan fan to appreciate I’m Not There, but the arcana associated with the guy’s career sure would come in handy. Get you on the ball for the next dooshnozzle waving their first pressing of John Wesley Harding at your nimbob ass.
And don’t you think for a mo’ that I wasn’t aware I got the timeline for my facts got a bit screwy. So was Haynes’ whole jagged plot line, so there. It’s not that I didn’t fully care for accuracy, or twisted things to suit this installment (okay, maybe a tad), but rather writing a biopic and a review for a biopic you take a few “creative liberties” to make the data flow download easier. Otherwise both would be a long, winding, tedious display of literary upchuck which would be nothing but self aggrandizing…
Pass in your blue books.
“You’re born, you know, the wrong names, wrong parents. I mean, that happens. You call yourself what you want to call yourself. This is the land of the free.”
Bob Dylan. Chronicles, Vol 1.
Rent it or relent it? An enthusiastic rent it. A first. I know, right? Sorry to get all academic, but it sure tasted better than your final in Economics 101 right? If you like Dylan, you’ll adore I’m Not There. If you aren’t, the film might goad into buying an album of his. If it did neither, you’re hopelessly wrapped up in your Melanie Martinez obsession.
Happy New Year, BTW.
- The soundtrack is awesome, naturally.
- “Whoever heard of a fatalistic farmer?”
- Why’d Robbie leave the lights on?
- Bruce Greenwood is yet another character actor that’s earning my respect, up there with Peña and Love.
- I was too engaged in the film to keep a steady stream of notes. Might explain why the review was so uneven. Either that or the beer.
- “Just like a woman!”
Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World. Worst. Personal ad. Ever.