That Haynes succeeds in capturing Bob Dylan's ever-changing essence is attributable to one of the neater cinematic tricks of recent memory.
It was Hegel who suggested that history is governed by the diktats of ‘world-historical’ individuals. They alone have the rare power to rise above the limited horizon of their own age. If that’s true, the last century belonged to one such man – Bob Dylan – a singer, actor, artist and activist who has repeatedly transformed nature in order able to recognise himself in it.
This conceit is at the heart of Todd Haynes’ new quasi-biopic of the sui generis 'Song and Dance Man'. It’s a movie which pivots around Dylan’s ability to shape-shift, and the manifold identities he continues to skirt. That Haynes succeeds in capturing these ever-changing essences is attributable to one of the neater cinematic tricks of recent memory: the dramatisation of Dylan’s metamorphoses by using multiple actors, genres and stories to trace the diverse musical themes in the songwriter’s life.
In all, Dylan is re-rendered sixfold. First, and most intriguingly, by Marcus Carl Franklin as Woody, a young, black re-embodiment of Dylan’s bygone reverence for the folk music of Woody Guthrie. Dylan’s subsequent protest and born-again Christianity periods are depicted smartly via faux-documentary footage of Christian Bale as Jack Rollins, informal chronicler of American unrest turned Californian pastor. Both eras are made manifest by spookily redolent versions of Dylan songs ('The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll' and 'Pressing On', respectively).
Third is Ben Whishaw as Arthur, the manifestation of French symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud and, more broadly, an evocation of the singer’s fêted embrace of Beat doublespeak. Fourth, and most tendentiously, is Cate Blanchett as Jude, the genderless Dylan of Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back as he might have been captured by Fellini, or even Richard Lester. Her performance is reminiscent of Anthony Hopkins’ in Nixon, where physical and vocal mannerisms pay handsomer dividends than mere facial likeness.
All of which leaves us with the two chapters which function as the film’s glue – a centrepiece affaire du coeur and a Wild West chimera. Veiled references to the Rolling Thunder Revue abound in the latter, including a hazy reprisal of Dylan’s own cameo in Peckinpah's Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, with Richard Gere oozing chutzpah as an auxiliary Billy Bonny; shot in the back… by a motorcycle crash.
Although the least linear of the film’s narratives, Gere’s sections are without doubt among its most gratifying – bettered only, in fact, by Heath Ledger’s, the Australian actor positively coruscating as Robbie, an actor who plays Dylan in a movie and whose relationship to the painter Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) mirrors Dylan’s marriage to, and divorce from, Sarah Lownds.
The scrupulously checked-in intensity of their shared scenes lends an otherwise-lacking straightforwardness to a film which, in the final analysis, feels much, much bigger than mere musical biography. Indeed, unintended nods to Hegel notwithstanding, one might read it as a piecemeal history of the twentieth century itself.
Orange Juice Blues (Blues for Breakfast).
It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry.
Tight Connection to My Heart (Has Anybody Seen My Love).