Six Dylans Are Better Than One

How to make a pop-music biopic that doesn’t stink.

Cate Blanchett as Bob Dylan. Click image to expand.
Cate Blanchett as Bob Dylan in I’m Not There

Sooner or later, every movie phenomenon earns its corresponding movie spoof: James Bond has his Austin Powers, scary movies have their Scary Movie s, and now the pop-music biopic is getting its very own Spaceballs. Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, starring John C. Reilly as the titular country-rock legend and produced by the unstoppable Judd Apatow, tweaks the formula that encompasses prestige pictures Walk the Line and Ray but also ill-advised vanity projects such as the recent J.Lo dud El Cantante or Kevin Spacey’s hypnotically awful Beyond the Sea. To judge by the trailer, Walk Hard promises a Mad Libs version of all the genre’s basics: the protagonist’s hardscrabble roots, the defining early trauma (being brother to a future pop superstar can be compared to being the drummer in Spinal Tap), the methodical rise to fame, the spiraling addictions to drugs and women who aren’t your wife, and, finally, the ascent from the ruins of collapsed marriages and veins to bask in the knowledge that your hit songs have changed music/culture/the world forever.

Walk Hard’s December release date puts the movie in the thick of the awards season, where spot-on impressions of Ray Charles and the Carter-Cash alliance have earned handsome returns in recent years. The comedy will also follow on the heels of two music biopics that are fortunately more resistant to parody than their brethren. Anton Corbijn’s Control, arriving in theaters today, depicts the truncated life of Ian Curtis, lead singer of the foreboding Manchester post-punk band Joy Division, who committed suicide at age 23. Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There, due out next month, casts six actors in the role of American idol-in-chief and professional enigma Bob Dylan.

Corbijn’s pensive, monochrome film—based in part on the memoirs of Curtis’ widow, Deborah—and Haynes’ sprawling, colorful work of Dylanology are worlds apart in their tone and approach, but they share an aversion to the usual checklist of biopic signifiers. And though both films feature some ace mimicry, they’re more interested in their subjects as screens for projecting our own desires, interpretations, and educated guesses. They take the perspective of the detached yet deeply invested observer—the fan a few rows back from the stage, who is rapt and imaginative in his devotions yet clear-eyed about the limits of his understanding. Though the title of Deborah Curtis’ book, Touching From a Distance, is a line from a Joy Division song that sums up the failed Curtis marriage, it also happens to describe the methodology of the best music biopics.

Haynes, for one, landed on a brilliant distancing device when he used Mattel toys in Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987), which casts the anorexic soft-rock singer as a broken Barbie doll, as if to represent her doomed quest for plastic perfection. (The improbably wrenching Superstar ranks alongside the Rolling Stones documentary Cocksucker Blues as the ultimate cult-film samizdat; we can’t tell you where to find it online, but please try.)

Velvet Goldmine (1998), Haynes’ ode to glam rock—and particularly to Ziggy Stardust–era David Bowie—also operates at a couple of removes. For one thing, the garish bacchanalia of the film’s milieu is seen through the eyes of a worshipful outsider, the fan-turned-reporter played by Christian Bale. And perhaps more crucially, Velvet Goldmine is a rumination on Bowie that features no actual Bowie music (the producers couldn’t secure the rights). What might have been an insurmountable obstacle for a less resourceful director, however, actually becomes an asset to Velvet Goldmine, inspiring the film to riff and improvise to fill in the gaps, nailing glam rock’s mischievous, gender-bending mojo without relying solely on cover versions. After all, Bowie is available to us whenever we want him; Velvet Goldmine at once channels Bowie’s spirit and makes it new.

Haynes seems to understand better than anyone that a biographical film about a pop star is a different challenge than one about, say, a schizophrenic mathematician or a pioneering sex researcher. The pop-music biopic is always at risk of getting mired in the clichés of the lifestyle it depicts; these films may strive to reveal the man behind the legend, but even if the coordinates vary, the sine curve of rise-and-fall-and-rise is usually the same. And in many cases, the audience is already intimately familiar with the artist’s look, sound, and biographical particulars anyway. The more intrepid pop biopics, then, recognize the need to invent rather than merely re-enact—or at least give the re-enactments a twist. For instance, I’m Not There occasions some very Dylan-esque mumbling and fidgeting from Christian Bale and young British actor Ben Whishaw, but the only full-on impersonation of the man is by a woman, Cate Blanchett.

For a film to re-enact events, of course, one needs some solid information to go by; a lack of hard data can be as weirdly liberating to a music biopic as a lack of song clearances. Gus Van Sant’s Last Days (2005) portrays the occluded final week before Kurt Cobain’s suicide without the benefit of a single Nirvana song or any certainty about Cobain’s exact activities during that fateful time. Appropriately, Last Days is shrouded in ambiguity: Standing between the viewer and the Cobain character, “Blake,” is a disorienting haze of heavy opiates and musique concrète. What’s clear is that everything Blake does, from his rambles in the woods to his anesthetizing use of heroin, suggests a man on the run from his life. As an exercise in what-if, Last Days has affinities with Christopher Münch’s The Hours and Times (1991), a wistful, romantic speculation on the holiday to Spain that John Lennon and Brian Epstein took together during the first stirrings of Beatlemania. No one really knows what happened on that trip, and this lacuna is the springboard for a bittersweet film vignette: the biopic as fan fiction.

I’m Not There likewise embraces wild conjecture and pure fantasy—it’s not a film biography so much as it’s a panorama of a persona. Here the former Robert Zimmerman is a shape-shifting imp, who at any given moment might become an African-American schoolboy, a po-faced Christian evangelist, or enfant terrible poet Arthur Rimbaud. Each character in the composite gets a cinematic style to match, with nods to Fellini, Godard, and Altman. The result is a film that isn’t simply about Dylan but one that’s possessed by his restless energy and shares his preternatural gift for self-invention and savvy borrowing, his ability to shed his skin at a moment’s notice.

By contrast, Control has a single, gorgeously sustained aesthetic, framing the young musicians of Joy Division in mostly stationary master shots: tableaux vivants cast under charcoal and sepia shadows. The effect is both to evoke the dreary context that made the band possible—the grim-up-North twilight of Old Labor—and the overcast skies of Curtis’ internal weather. As a young photographer, director Corbijn was responsible for some of the imagery that made Joy Division into icons, and though Control bears a deep influence of British kitchen-sink realism, the cinematography lends the band—the lost Curtis in particular—an otherworldly aura of spare, timeless grandeur. As played by Sam Riley, Curtis is by turns loveable, sympathetic, and maddening: a mercurial enigma. Even to those closest to him, he’s always just out of reach.

Control wisely leaves the circumstances of Curtis’ death open-ended: The viewer can interpret his suicide as the inevitable follow-up to at least one previous attempt, or the result of a sudden, catastrophic impulse—an urge that could have just as easily come and gone. On these and other questions, Control won’t settle on one definitive answer any more than I’m Not There will settle on one definitive Dylan. The most compelling and challenging pop-music biopics implicitly converge on this point: There’s no formula for demystifying our pop idols, and even if there were—why break a spell when you can cast another?