Control and I'm Not There avoid the biopic pitfalls.

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Oct. 10 2007 3:09 PM

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.

Jessica Winter Jessica Winter

Jessica Winter is a Slate senior editor.

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.

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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.