Restored to bright and vibrant color, The Beatles second film, Help!, has just been reissued on DVD. I bought a copy a week or two before I saw the new Todd Haynes Bob Dylan anti-biopic I’m Not There. I mention the two films together because I remembered that among the ideas kicked around for the third Beatles film was one that called for the four Beatles to play four different aspects of one character. At one point the Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni was supposedly connected to the idea – most likely apocryphal given that Blow Up is the most critical film even made about “the sixties” generation – but nothing ever came of it.
Without question however, the most bizarre third Beatles film that never happened involved a plan to have Stanley Kubrick direct the four Beatles in a film version of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings with George as Gandalf, Paul as Frodo, Ringo as Sam, and John as Gollum.
Dennis O’Dell, the head of Apple Films had worked with Kubrick on the production of Doctor Strangelove. In The Beatles film Magical Mystery Tour (which I think represents a home movie more than a follow-up to Help!) there is a sequence for the lone Beatles’ instrumental “Flying” in which O’Dell took some aerial footage shot for Doctor Strangelove but never used, and colorized it, giving it a sufficiently psychedelic look. Amazingly, when the film debuted on British TV on Boxing Day 1967, Kubrick watched it at home, recognized his pilfered footage and called O’Dell.
Around the same time someone gave John Lennon a set of the Tolkien books which he read during those moments when the acid wore off long enough for the letters to stop swirling around the page. Needless to say, John was hooked. O’Dell took the idea of a Beatles’ Lord of the Rings to United Artists who said they were interested, but because of what would be a sizable budget, required that a “name” director be part of the deal.
You can see where this is going.
O’Dell met with Kubrick who said he was interested but that he’d never read the Tolkien books. Stanley had booked passage on a ship back to the US and said he would read them on the trip. When he returned he called O’Dell and announced that the books were quite good but completely unfilmable and bowed out of the discussion. By that time Lennon’s attention had already moved on to the next batch of shiny bright things and the idea was quietly abandoned.
I love this story because it reminds me of something I can easily forget when I listen to The Beatles. By the time the band was reduced to nothing more than a room full of lawyers in 1970-71 not a single Beatle had yet turned thirty years old. The idea of the four of them tripping their way across Middle Earth is the perfect LSD-fueled fantasy of twenty-something young men.
But I digress….
Before I tell you what I think about I’m Not There, let me say that I think you should see it. Unlike most films playing as I write this, it’s worth your time.
I don’t believe you have to be a "fan" of Bob Dylan to see this film.
Dylan occupies a place in the culture comparable to the one occupied by The Beatles. A person who owns no Beatles albums, who would fail a “name that tune” round of Beatles songs, who might not even be able to successfully match “John “Paul” George” “Ringo” to the four photos that came with The White Album, would still have absorbed enough information about The Beatles through his skin in the process of walking through the world by this point to watch a documentary on The Beatles and make sense of it.
The idea here was to not make the standard biopic in which the actor playing the “young Bob” would have some conversation with his mother in their Hibbing, Minnesota kitchen over oatmeal about following one’s dream before a slow dissolve turned him into the actor playing the “older” Bob walking up the steps of the Brooklyn State Hospital on his way to meet Woody Guthrie.
If that sounds like a film you’d like to watch, well, WHAT THE HELL IS YOUR PROBLEM?!?!?
Sorry. I just hate “biopics.”
And where I’m Not There develops problems is in the degree to which it actually fails to escape the gravitational pull of the standard biopic for all it’s cleverness in casting six actors to play Bob Dylan.
Among the most interesting portrayals is one by the young 11 year-old African-American actor, Marcus Carl Franklin, as “Woody Guthrie.”
Before single-handedly forcing a redefinition of “authenticity” in folk music by the sheer power of his will and talent, Bob Dylan entered the stream of the folk revival understanding (1) that there were “authentic” lives and (2) that his wasn’t one of them. What an odd notion, that authentic people could never be Jews from Minnesota whose fathers owned appliance stores.
Bob Dylan would have never survived in the media culture of 2007.
Having developed a reputation as an engaging performer with albeit limited appeal, he’d lucked out and gotten a good review in the NY Times that brought him to the attention of John Hammond, Sr. who signed him to Columbia and produced a debut LP that sold fewer copies than any record in Columbia’s history. It was when he began to write that he began to attract an audience.
Befriended by the reigning Queen of Folk Music, Joan Baez, Dylan wrote “Blowing in the Wind” a song that, totally unlike the rest of his massive catalog, resembles “Amazing Grace” and “We Shall Overcome,” songs that sound as if they have no authorship, as if they were delivered on stone tablets or first heard rising from a burning bush.
But Robert Allen Zimmerman from Hibbing, Minnesota, had crafted a fictitious biography for himself. His parents were dead, or had been carnival folk, or both. He was raised in a traveling carnival that roamed across the southwest, or by wolves in South Dakota. He learned songs first hand at the knee of Blind Snake Oil Roberts and Old Sorrowful and Lightning Hopkins and Blind Boy Fuller.
One of the best bootleg recordings of early Bob Dylan is a radio program called “Folksinger’s Choice” hosted by Cynthia Gooding which aired in New York sometime in 1962 (I have seen both November and March dates listed). Dylan performs fourteen songs, a mix of early originals, traditional songs, and songs by Hank Williams, Bukka White, Howlin’ Wolf and Woody Guthrie. The performance is incredible, but the interview, also extensive, is amazing. If Gooding had asked Dylan his belt size, the date or the time I am certain he’d have lied about those too!
CG: When I first heard Bob Dylan it was, I think, about three years ago in Minneapolis, and at that time you were thinking of being a rock and roll singer weren't you?
BD: Well at that time I was just sort of doin' nothin'. I was there.
CG: Well, you were studying.
BD: I was working, I guess. l was making pretend I was going to school out there. I'd just come there from South Dakota. That was about three years ago?
BD: Yeah, I'd come there from Sioux Falls. That was only about the place you didn't have to go too far to find the Mississippi River. It runs right through the town you know. (laughs).
When I say that Dylan wouldn’t have survived the media climate of 2007 I mean that the story that broke sometime in, I think, 1964 in which a reporter tracked down Dylan’s (still living) parents and his High School year book photo played out fairly quickly. Dylan mostly refused to comment on it and the world moved on. A world that didn’t have 300 24-hour cable news channels looking for “stories.” In today’s world, Dylan could have easily been tarred as the Vanilla Ice of the folk revival.
I suspect that after the interview Dylan went home with Gooding, stayed for a couple weeks, ate all her food, stole her record collection and moved on.
I’m not joking about the record collection either. The young Bob Dylan was one of the original “turn table artists.” Until Dylan’s generation, musicians learned their craft at the feet of other musicians who came before them. Ramblin’ Jack Elliot (a Jew from Brooklyn born one Elliott Charles Adnopoz in 1931) really did run away from home and join a rodeo and learn his first guitar chords from a rodeo clown. Jack heard Woody Guthrie, tracked him down and traveled with him throughout the western US for years learning his craft.
But Dylan, like almost everyone who followed him, would learn his craft on the edge of a bed sitting by a turntable playing records, sometimes slowing them down to figure out guitar parts. Among the stories told about Dylan’s early days in New York is one about his theft of a stack of records from someone who’d been nice enough to offer his couch and the friends of that guy who showed up one night intent on retrieving the records and putting a beating on the voice of their generation.
One of the purloined records was the Rosetta Stone of the folk revival, Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. A compilation of recordings of American folk and country music commercially released as 78 rpm records between 1927 and 1932, the anthology was released in 1952 on Folkways Records as three two-LP sets. This was the document that brought the works of Blind Lemon Jefferson, Mississippi John Hurt, Dick Justice, The Carter Family and Clarence Ashley to the attention of this new generation of performers. In the liner notes to the 1997 reissue, the late Dave van Ronk wrote that "we all knew every word of every song on it, including the ones we hated.”
As early as 1927, Carl Sandburg understood that “A song is a role. The singer acts a part . . . all good artists study a song and live with it before performing it . . . . There is something authentic about any person’s way of giving a song which has been known, lived with and loved, for many years, by the singer.”
Robert Cantwell, in his book When We Were Good: The Folk Revival, writes that by 1965 “the folksinger’s persona had evolved into a loosely conventional form, that of the casually road-weary traveler in jeans and boots or peasant frocks, clothes rumpled as parents would allow, erratic hair, one who speaks a pidgin idiom neither south nor west but vaguely regional and proletarian, that non-regional dialect of the Shangri-La West that Bob Dylan and Jack Elliot hailed from, that mythical nowhere where all men talk like Woody Guthrie and are recorded by Moses Asch.” (pp. 328-329)
“Whoever Bob Dylan was, Columbia’s high-fidelity micro-grooves brought his callow voice, wretchedly overwrought, his stagey panhandle dialect, his untutored guitar and harmonica – all of his gallant fraudulence – into dormitory rooms with shocking immediacy. And when, in the spoken preface to his shattering ‘Baby Let Me Follow You Down,’ he waggishly reported that he had learned the song from one Rick Von Schmidt, a blues guitar player from Cambridge, whom he had ‘met one day in the green pastures of. . .ah. . .Harvard University,’ the folk revival had met one of its own.” (p. 345)
“The folk revival, then, is really a moment of transformation in which an unprecedented convergence of postwar economics and demographic forces carried a culture of personal rebellion across normally impermeable social and cultural barriers under the influence of authority of folk music, at once democratic and esoteric, already obscurely imbued with a spirit of protest. This passage across social lines, again, transformed it, endowing it with new expressive forms, and with a legitimacy both wonderful and terrible – terrible because the massively politicizing issue of the Vietnam War, beginning in 1965, would swell it to a tidal wave of protest that swept destructively over the cultural landscape, leaving behind it deep racial, class, gender, and other moraines.” (p. 346)
By 1965 Dylan’s emerging persona became the source of a self-contained “authentic” self. The more other songwriters scrambled to write “Bob Dylan” songs, the more authentic Bob Dylan became in contrast.
But, I digress….
Pretty much everything above lies in the subtext of Marcus Carl Franklin performance as “Woody.” Later in the film, in the odd and disjointed old western town of “Riddle,” Franklin reappears dressed as Charlie Chaplin with Chaplin moustache and cap and cane, only for a moment before disappearing back into, well, the “Riddle.”
Haynes says there was a seventh Dylan in the original screenplay, a Chaplin character created to represent the Dylan of the folk coffeehouse scene in New York whose performances were – and people just coming to Dylan today will find this incomprehensible – funny. But the character was cut for length, and length is the other problem I think the film suffers from. Just as Chaplin Dylan was reduced to a cameo, I think dropping the lion's share of Ben Whishaw’s Arthur Rimbaud Dylan could have helped the problem of the film’s length.
In a traditional narrative, there is a feeling you get as a story proceeds; a sense of where you are – beginning, middle or end – at any point. When a film that really tells no story is long, the feeling that this may never end is not a particularly pleasant one. Cutting most of the Rimbaud Dylan and trimming the Woody Dylan – what’s up with the big whale in the river anyway? – would have been a good step in cutting some length.
Walking out of the theatre, I wasn't sure what to make of Christian Bale’s performance as both the Protest Dylan and Gospel Dylan. After a few days of letting them resonate, I think he does a superb job of playing a man who is more uncomfortable in his own skin than anyone I think I’ve ever seen.
It’s here where a mini tsunami of Dylan iconography is unleashed in the form of famous photos, still images that spring to life, concert posters, and a spot-on perfect performance by Julianne Moore as Joan Baez. I’m not sure it’s even possible to explain how impressive her performance is to someone unfamiliar with the various stages of Baez. The Bale/Jack Rollins/Protest Dylan is, at times, uncomfortable to watch which is, I think, the point.
Bale’s later transition into the Gospel Dylan is extraordinary as well. Here again we get the underlying shift in the Dylan persona, done in a way that side-steps the standard biopic very well. This Rollins/Dylan is an ordained minister. Unlike the “real” Dylan, this Dylan never came back from his conversion, and in the end is reduced to preaching a dire “last days” message to a room of maybe 8 people. The fact that he even plays music seems inconsequential.
The film has a point of view - it doesn't like this apocalyptic evangelical variant of Christianity. It is very clear on this point.
What Haynes has done with Heath Ledger’s Robbie the Actor Dylan – who we first see as he becomes famous for his portrayal of the Jack Rollins/Protest Dylan in a “biopic” is, along with the idea of the Woody Dylan, to create the most successful attempt to fracture, shatter, and generally screw with traditional biopic conventions.
Of all the Dylans here, Ledger’s looks more like the Woodstock-Self Portrait-era Bob than even Blanchett does the 65-66 Bob. And Ledger performance is aided enormously by Charlotte Gainsbourg playing a character assembled from biographical bits of Suze Rotolo and Sarah Lowndes-Dylan made into a French painter. In offering this next-to-impossible-to-sort-out jumble of truth and fiction Haynes simultaneously gives us the “real” (i.e., unreal) “Bob Dylan” and shines a light on new directions in the biopic. For me, these are the peak performances in the film.
I’ve read one criticism of the push for a “Best Actress” Oscar for Cate Blanchett that argues that she only merits “Best Supporting Actress” because she plays the same part played by five other actors in the same film. This sounds like it was written by someone who read a synopsis but hasn’t actually seen the film; Blanchett’s “Jude Quinn” (I don’t know either, maybe some weird weld of “Hey Jude” and “Quinn the Eskimo”) totally dominates the movie. She has more screen time and the combination of her skills – she is the “best actor” here – and the unavoidable novelty of casting – like Travolta in Hairspray ratcheted up by the power of ten – allow her to, at times, disappear into the part.
But it is in these sequences, shot in black & white so as to resemble D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back, that I’m Not There downshifts into an almost conventional biopic mode. We get great performances by David Cross as Alan Ginsberg and Peter Friedman as Albert Grossman/Morris Bernstein and Bruce Greenwood as the journalist-cum-inquisitor/Mister Jones/Pat Garrett. We even get the Bobby Neuwirth-Bob Dylan-Edie Sedgwick (“Co-Co Rivington”) love triangle. The Jude Dylan sequence comes closest to the “dumping the notebook” phenomenon in which Haynes finds so many period factoids so interesting that he seems to squeeze one in at every opportunity.
The scene that almost saves this sequence is the meeting by the river where Dylan arrives with The Beatles in an explosion of the visual comedic style of A Hard Day’s Night as they tumble and roll on the grass. The four exit through the gate to the rear, first herded to the left by a bowler hat-wearing Brian Epstein, to remerge in the background a moment later running to the right chased by a small crowd of screaming fans. As Jude Dylan enters he is immediately waylaid by Max Walker playing a perfect collection of tics that comprise every fact-obsessed Bob Dylan “fan.” This was the one moment I laughed out loud in the theatre.
Haynes' intent seems most obscure in the film's last sequence with Richard Gere as a Billy the Kid Dylan living quietly in the old western town of Riddle. The Charlie Chaplin Dylan makes his brief appearance here, a band plays "Goin' To Acapulco" and the visual style of the cover of The Basement Tapes album is heavily referenced in the various characters and still life's on display. Modernity is about to destroy the old ways of the town; when Billy Dylan protests, an ancient Pat Garrett imprisons him. He escapes and hops a freight train heading out of town where he finds Woody's guitar, dusts it off and strums as he watches his dog run after the train but not quite make it.
That last bit, Dylan abandoning the dog rather than jumping off, getting the dog, and catching the next train I read as Haynes' quiet little reference to what a self-centered jerk the "real" Bob Dylan is, cutting off friends and lovers and never looking back. One person I discussed the film with saw it more as a reference to sacrifice, but it seems more like the dog's sacrifice than Bob's so I'm not sure what that means.
The whole Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid period is a minor footnote in Dylan's biography and I'm not really sure why it's elevated to play the role it does here. Nor am I clear on why Dylan, who played a character named "Alias" in the Peckinpah film, is recast now as one of the leads. The entire Billy the Kid Dylan sequence has this other narrative imposed upon it with its own characters and its own drama, but the drama is more dream-like than anything else. The sort of dream you have that makes perfect sense until you slowly wake up, your rational mind kicks in, and all the "sense" your dream made blows away like so much smoke.
The "sense" to be found in Dylan's best work is more like that dream sense; a kind of non-rational connect-the-dots of imagery and the play of language across the surface of the texts (think "Visions of Johanna" "Desolation Row"). So it is with most of this film; and that may well point to a fundamental structuring device here as one of a series of dreams.
In the end, it is the longest sequence, the only black & white sequence, the one that everyone who will write about this film will write about - as if the casting of Cate Blanchett to play the androgynous Dylan of 65-66 is somehow more novel than casting an 11 year-old black actor to play the 20 year-old Dylan - is the one that comes most dangerously close to the very film Haynes set out not to make.