Like a Complete Unknown

The changing face of Bob Dylan on film

In 1963, Dylan was a prodigy performing for a particular coterie. A year later, he is the festival's undeniable star, confident and no longer scruffy, with a repertoire of original songs — "Mr. Tambourine Man," "All I Want to Do," "Don't Think Twice" — so good that the audience seems to shake its collective head in disbelief. Had the coffeehouses of MacDougal Street really incubated so miraculous a talent? No longer is Dylan anybody's protégé; now Baez is his straight man, particularly when they sing their increasingly lugubrious anthem "With God on Our Side."

For his final number, Dylan introduces "Chimes of Freedom," declaiming it in a controlled beatnik ecstasy. It's his most complex song to date — and his most generous ever, a Whitmanesque embrace extended to "every hung-up person in the whole wide universe." The words keep spinning and tumbling; the sense of communion is overwhelming. Dylan delights in blowing the audience's mind. The crowd can't stop applauding. In a moment no one will ever see again, after a song he will soon cease to play, Bob pops back onstage to tell the fans that he loves them.

As the '65 festival begins, Dylan sports a fancier guitar and a better haircut. What's more, he's wearing shades and smoking his cigarettes onstage. It's clear that he's planning to run away from home. And the songs are even better! When he sings "Love Minus Zero (No Limit)," the audience still leans forward to concentrate. Then he appears in a polka-dot shirt and leather jacket, fronting the amplified Paul Butterfield Blues Band, and blows the audience away with the declaration that he ain't gonna work on Maggie's farm no more. Scattered sullen boos. Dylan charges into his just-released Top 40 hit "Like a Rolling Stone." More boos.

In I'm Not There, Haynes envisions Newport '65 as a direct assault on the audience. The dandified Dylan and his band spray the crowd with machine-gun fire. Then, following the logic of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Haynes elects to "print the myth": He stages the apocryphal scene in which Pete Seeger has to be restrained from cutting the power supply with an ax. It's war!

In The Other Side of the Mirror, Dylan simply leaves the stage, but the crowd calls him back. Can't it please be the way that it was? Dylan returns alone and contemptuously sings them something they'll like: a polished, slightly rushed, and vaguely sarcastic version of "Mr. Tambourine Man." The audience begs for more. He leaves them with a hyper-enunciated rendition of "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue." End of story. Was ever a star more appreciated — or more stifled by that appreciation?

Haynes's protagonist first appears as an 11-year-old African-American (Marcus Carl Franklin) riding the rails, hobnobbing with hobos, and calling himself Woody. Singing his Dust Bowl ballads and doted on by white Southern liberals, this plucky, pint-size vagabond is a hilariously self-aggrandizing, assured, voluble, and precocious performer, even if he has to be reminded that it's 1959. He's also a tough act to follow, but the mythmaking has only just begun.

Dylan's next avatar, the diffident protest singer Jack Rollins (Christian Bale), resembles another Dylan model, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, and inhabits a pastiche of the Scorsese doc No Direction Home. Looking back on the folk scene, Julianne Moore plays a fictional Joan Baez ("Every night I would invite this ragamuffin on stage") while Jack explains why he decided to take a powder: "All they wanted from me was finger-pointin' songs." (Not that Dylan ever stopped pointing his finger; he just shifted targets. Indeed, Jack will later reappear as the born-again, gospel-singing Pastor John.)

Haynes now executes a Pirandellian pirouette, jumping to the last days of the Vietnam War. The protagonist is now Robbie (Heath Ledger), an egocentric Method actor who, after Jack Rollins's disappearance, became "the new James Dean" by impersonating the folkie icon in a biopic called Grain of Sand. Still with me? Robbie is introduced breaking up with his wife Claire. Haynes then flashes back a decade to their meeting in a Greenwich Village coffeehouse. An independent artist and then the mother of Robbie's children, Claire is the relationship woman, combining aspects of Suze Rotolo and Sara Dylan and played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, herself a text as the daughter of a '60s "It" Girl, Jane Birkin, and a monstre sacré, French troubadour Serge Gainsbourg.

Having unmasked and remasked the protagonist, Haynes skips at once back and ahead to mod London to present his own sacred monster — the incandescent mid-'60s electric speed freak Jude Quinn (Cate Blanchett). Haynes is not what one would call a natural filmmaker. His ideas are too evident, his schemata overly present. He is, however, a sort of natural Brechtian: His actors are always "quoting." I'm Not There gets surprisingly naturalistic performances from Ledger and especially Bale. But it's the blatant alienation effect provided by Marcus Carl Franklin's and Cate Blanchett's fastidiously copied mannerisms that truly dramatize the self-invented, sheer sui generis-ness of the Dylan trip.

With Blanchett, the movie turns black-and-white faux vérité. Drawing on D.A. Pennebaker's Don't Look Back and riffing on A Hard Day's Night (Jude frisks with under-cranked, helium-voiced Beatles at a British lawn party), Haynes ponders Dylan's most alarming and compelling manifestation as the vitriolic brat-visionary "voice of a generation." Allen Ginsberg (David Cross) dances attendance; a smug BBC journalist (Bruce Greenwood) casts himself as the clueless Mr. Jones; an Edie Sedgwick-like ex-debutante (Michelle Williams) drifts onto the scene, grist for Jude's malicious humor.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help

Now Showing

Find capsule reviews, showtimes & tickets for all films in town.

Box Office Report

Join My Voice Nation for free stuff, film info & more!