Bob Dylan is a china doll. Sweep him off the table, watch him hit the floor and shatter into small pieces, then glue him more or less back together and comfort him: he’s just a little nervous from the fall. The pieces don’t exactly fit anymore, but the process allows rediscovery of one of the strangest and brightest of all American lives.
This is essentially what director Todd Haynes has done, making a surpassingly unconventional biography of Dylan’s life from the early ‘60s to the early ‘80s, assigning the lead role to six actors: Marcus Carl Franklin as the pre-fame, Song to Woody Dylan, lying and inventing himself on the fly, charming beyond any reasonable expectation; Ben Wishaw as the newly famous, My Back Pages folk singer discovering bitterly that his audience isn’t interested in him changing or moving on; Cate Blanchett as the Highway 61 Revisited-era amphetamine junkie doing ninety miles an hour down a dead end street, a beautiful disaster; Richard Gere as the woodshedding, post-motorcycle accident Dylan of Basement Tapes lore, utterly lost in what Greil Marcus called the old, weird America; Heath Ledger as the cynical but fatherly ‘70s Blood on the Tracks and Desire rock star; and last but not least weird, Christian Bale as the apocalyptic, Christian visionary of Slow Train Coming who finally has something to say outside his writing, but whose audience has dwindled to an apathetic few.
The movie cuts back and forth among these six Dylans, giving him different names, even different professions, using his song lyrics and most famous public events in the life – being booed at Newport; shouts of “Judas” by a concertgoer in the UK; turning the Beatles on to pot; his famously horrifying confrontations with the press in the mid-’60s; the shattering divorce from Sara — as signposts, never sticking strictly to the literal facts of Dylan’s life, letting the fragments of the six Dylans bounce off and illuminate each other. It’s moving and direct enough to get your attention on first watching, and profoundly layered and allusive enough to require repeated viewings if you want to see everything that Haynes is up to.
Cate Blanchett gets all the attention and awards talk for her cross-dressing portrayal of Dylan at his most scathing and magnetic, and she deserves it. You can’t take your eyes off her as she staggers through Dylan’s best-dressed, most confrontational and most f****d up time in his life, what was essentially a long-playing nervous breakdown. It’s an over-the-top performance rooted firmly in the truth.
Richard Gere has what in some ways is the hardest role, the only one of the six Dylans who’s withdrawn completely into himself. His main job is to be lost, and he gives it intelligence and grace.
One of the real pleasure of the movie is the great acting from people who have just a few moments on screen: Bruce Greenwood is a stand-in for all the contemptuous press people at Dylan’s press conferences; Charlotte Gainsbourg as Sara Dylan spends virtually no camera time with any of the Bobs yet brilliantly communicates what the marriage was like and the stoic mystery at the heart of Sara Dylan’s soul; and David Cross plays it straight as Allan Ginsberg (no suggestion here of the rumored sexual liaisons between Dylan and Ginsberg). Special shout out to Julianne Moore, who deftly but mercilessly skewers Joan Baez.
What Haynes has essentially done is create a film that is a Bob Dylan song, one of his best. (And it would be a great companion piece to the underrated “Masked and Anonymous,” which stars Dylan himself.)