Magical musical tours
Two audacious musicals – inspired by Bob Dylan and The Beatles – had screenings in Toronto
TWOyears ago, the Toronto festival presented the premiere of No Direction Home, Martin Scorsese’s Bob Dylan documentary which remained riveting for four hours but offered few actual insights into the enigma of its subject. Earlier this year Hayden Christensen played a thinly disguised Dylan in Factory Girl, which got the incidental details right but ventured no further.
Now Todd Haynes, the adventurous director of Safe and Far from Heaven, goes the distance with I’m Not There, which takes its title from a Dylan track on The Basement Tapes. An opening credit states that the movie was “inspired by the music and many lives of Bob Dylan” and, given that Dylan reinvented himself so often, Haynes imaginatively chose six actors to enact those many lives. (Dylan’s name is never mentioned in the movie.)
The audacious nature of the enterprise is emphasised in establishing the first Dylan surrogate, a charming 11-year-old black boy (Marcus Carl Franklin) who rides the rails with hobos, introduces himself as Woody Guthrie and carries a guitar case emblazoned “This machine kills Fascists”.
Next up is Dylan as a 19-year-old poet (Ben Whishaw) who calls himself Arthur Rimbuad. He is followed by Jack Rollins, the early 1960s folk singer heralded by the New York Times as the “troubadour of conscience” and played in the film’s most con- vincing impersonation of Dylan, physically and in speaking and singing voices, by the redoubtable Christian Bale.
Heath Ledger ably takes over as Dylan’s next incarnation, a womanising actor, before Haynes brings on his most daring casting. Cate Blanchett responds ingeniously to the challenge, androgynous with frizzled hair, polka dot shirt and tight tweed jacket. Finally, in a town called Riddle created with all the artifice of a movie set, there is the older, grizzled Dylan (Richard Gere), named Billy the Kid in a reference to the Sam Peckinpah western that featured Dylan.
Change is the recurring theme throughout I’m Not There, which is as thoughtful as it is playful: change in Dylan’s various personal relationships (“I lovewomen; everyone should have one,” he quips); change when he horrifies his followers by turning from acoustic to electric guitar; and changewhen he is derided as middleclass for abandoning socialist themes.
The music of the Fab Four is at the essence of the other highly stylised magical musical tour unveiled at Toronto this week, Julie Taymor’s rhapsodic Across the Universe.
The film takes its title from one of 33 Beatles songs on the soundtrack, and its opening line from another (Girl), when a young Liverpool dock worker plaintively sings, “Is there anybody going to listen to my story?” Hey, it’s Jude, played by newcomer Jim Sturgess, whose glowing screen presence matches his singing voice. The movie follows Jude when he moves to the US in the late 1960s, discovers the counter-culture and falls in love with a radical Princeton student named Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood).
This is a new, deliriously full-on musical in which the narrative is advanced through the lyrics of mostly classic compositions from 40-plus years ago, and spiked with a contemporary relevance.
Across the Universe is a unique achievement, bold, bursting with creative ideas and suffused with witty Beatles references, and the soundtrack is, as it has to be, a knockout. Because it is so unconventional in terms of mainstream cinema, you’ll either love it or hate it. I loved it.
Cate Blanchett as Bob Dylan
in I’m Not There (above).
Across the Universe (left)