I knew even before the house lights went down that I needed to approach this film in the right frame of mind. I knew not to expect a rational or linear plotline, that my disbelief would need to be firmly suspended, and that I would have to forgo any spirit of antagonistic criticism.
All that said, I found it a brilliant piece of work. Let me state, for the record, that I’ve never been the world’s biggest Dylan fan. I respect him as a titanic figure in American music, and my personal favorites list contains a decent sampling of some of Dylan’s hits (“Like a Rolling Stone”, “Lay Lady Lay”) and rarities (“One More Cup Of Coffee”, “Million Dollar Band”), but I’m no Dylan cultist. My interest in the film came less from a love of Dylan and more from an interest in what the film would say about art and life.
I think the best way to approach the film is with an understanding that none of the six Dylanesque main characters is meant to present a factual account of Dylan’s life. Rather, each represents an extended meditation by the filmmaker on aspects of Dylan’s history, mythology, and songwriting.
Arguably, this is the best possible way to treat a figure like Dylan. After all, it’s neither the actual man nor the the mundane details of his history we find compelling. It’s the worlds that unfold inside his music. Bob Dylan was never a train-hopping black teenaged runaway, a outlaw in a surreal frontier town or a storefront evangelical preacher as he is variously portrayed in the movie, but these portraits do speak to some of the wide variety of narrative self-portraits in Dylan’s lyrics. In the film we get Dylan not as he is, but even better, as we like to imagine him, and as we infer he likes to imagine himself.
The other wonderful thing about this film, for me, was that it brought the context of many previously inaccessible songs to life for me. I was born long enough after the first bloom of Dylan’s fame that by the time I discovered his music, it was only across the immense divide that separates one generation from the next. Watching the film taught me, for example, that “Ballad For a Thin Man” was a scathing attack on celebrity culture and the media, and that “Maggie’s Farm” –a song I’d always dismissed as faux hillbilly nonsense –was in fact a savage satirical bite at the hand that had previously fed him, the folk music movement. Armed with that knowledge, I was then primed to listen past the surface of those two songs to hear the significant and subversive political undertones of each.
With this film, director Todd Haynes has solidified his reputation as a real artist, and done his notoriously elusive subject justice.