Todd Haynes’ 2007 film about Bob Dylan is not a biopic, it’s a montage of portrayals through several actors. Significantly, the only really good performance is from Cate Blanchette playing Dylan in his most controversial mid sixties phase. The other performances highlight how average Dylan was outside the mid sixties, from fictitious hobo and Woody Guthrie wannabee parasite to mysogynistic rocker. The comparison of Dylan with Rimbaud is grandiloquently absurd. Haynes is meticulous on period details, to the point of parody (see Far from Heaven), so the film is superb on period details of Dylan’s strummer-turned surreal rocker from ’64 to ’67.
In parts, Blanchette’s performance eerily replicates the tetchy prima donna of the 1965 Don’t Look Back film, and we get accurate observations on the tacky hedonism of the Warhol period. We also get Godard-type scenes where our hero follows a socialite to impress her with superstar nonsense.
The film cleverly guys the ’70s stovepipe-hatted cowboy mystic style, complete with surreal stereotypes from the Basement Tapes cover, poses courtesy of Jesse James, rock star as outlaw hero.
Dylan has not had a happy relationship with cinema . His own appearances have been lamentable. Don’t Look Back showed how amphetamined middle brow chatter can cover for vacuity, and of his ’70s and’80s film appearances the less said the better. The Edie Sedgwick film does not flatter either.
As for the man himself, Dylan’s supposed martyrdom by fame and easy success reminds me of that Peter Cooke joke about Greta Garbo disregardedly wandering down an empty street shouting ‘I want to be alone’ through a megaphone. He backed into the limelight manufacturing a career out of being an ‘enigma’, not only does he complain when people then wonder what sort of enigma he is, he doesn’t realise it’s something the rest of us manage to be, without trying. As for which of the Bob Dylan’s is the real one, does anyone really care? The film shows us, albeit inadvertently, how overrated Dylan could be, outside his talent for media manipulation and impressing people with obscure phraseology wrapped in disparate imagery in songs lacking narrative development. This film tells us a lot about Todd Haynes, like Oliver Stone he is obviously obsessed with the myths of the ’60s and ’70s and sees Dylan’s career as an excuse to raid the cliche wardrobe. There is temporal cross cutting which does not cohere into a recognisable biography which was undoubtedly Haynes’s intention. Perhaps he wanted the film to be an analogy of a Dylan song or story, driven by image rather than narrative. There are justly cruel observations on Dylan’s manager, on Warhol groupies, on pampered Edie Sedgwick and Francoise Hardy types, on Ginsberg, and the’50s. Haynes maybe parodying the rock biopics served with the usual stereotypes of Kennedy, Vietnam, the moon landings etc, just in case we don’t get what the 60’s was all about.
Haynes gives the Cate Blanchette persona an easy ride allowing his bathetic remarks to stand unchallenged and of course anybody not in with the Dylan psyches private jokes is nowhere. Haynes is also good on the fawning establishment’s pathetic attempts to be hip and to ride his bandwagon.
Perhaps Haynes is satirising aspects of the Dylan myth, but isn’t he also augmenting it? It reminds me of those interviewers who would like to talk to Dylan but retreat into a distanced cool because afraid of a rebuff. Anybody coming to Dylan for the first time through this film might wonder if they are being manipulated and fooled. Haynes has made a clever film which manages to lionise and lampoon Dylan as it’s ultimately forgiving of his faults. A patchily good film about an unsympathetic subject.