Music biopics. A piece of piss, eh? Simply pick a suitably dramatic segment from a legendary hitmaker’s life, not forgetting to focus on the relentless pursuit of traditional rock ‘n’ roll vices for added oomph, throw in a drop of romance, amplify the myth to gargantuan proportions and sit back and wait. The crowds shall be flocking to the multiplexes in search of hard-living thrills soon enough.
Celebrated US auteur Todd Haynes (‘Far From Heaven’) clearly missed the meeting where these ground rules of music flicks were agreed on. Or at least the impressive count his take on Bob Dylan’s epic journey through nigh-on five decades at the forefront of rock music strikes on the odd-o-meter suggests so. Six actors, including such potent box office magnets as Cate Blanchett, Heath Ledger and Richard Gere, play Dylan in various imaginary but fact-based stages of his marathon-length and illustrious trek from earnest “prophet of protest” folkie through speed-fuelled rock star extraordinaire, rejuvenated 70’s comeback king and bible-bashing born again preacher to his ongoing reincarnation as a weathered yet still-vibrant road-hogging veteran.
Alas, this ambitious soundtrack can’t quite match the fascinating weirdness of the film synopsis. Mind you, to achieve that feat, digging this monumental 2-CD package would involve ploughing through 30-odd abstract jazz renditions of the Dylan oeuvre. If you want radical reinterprations, check out the recent Dylan-meets-reggae summit ‘Is It Rolling, Bob?’ The ‘I’m Not There’ soundtrack offers more conventional fare. What we’ve got is essentially the Greatest Bob Dylan Covers Album Ever; a heaven-sent to those who rank the man’s songwriting chops but consider his singular voice to resemble a strangulated frog in the midst of a severe throat infection, an impressively diverting treat to those of us who think Dylan’s one of the finest vocal stylists ever to stretch syllables to breaking point. Backed by tex-mex champions Calexico and an all-star outfit assembled by Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo, the cavalcade of talent on offer couldn’t be more generous, as revered alt. rock icons (Sonic Youth, Wilco chief Jeff Tweedy, Mark Lanegan), more recent additions to the frontline of US indie (Karen O, The Hold Steady, Cat Power, Antony & The Johnsons) and wizened veterans (Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Byrds mainman Roger McGuinn, Willie Nelson, Richie Havens) take turns in tackling choice cuts from the vast Dylan canon.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, those skirting the more obvious selections provide the peaks here, with the tropical dub of Iron & Wine’s ‘Dark Eyes’, ex-X John Doe’s rousing gospel-soul ‘Pressing On’, Sufjan Stevens’s brilliantly florid flipside to the stark original cut of ‘Ring Them Bells’, Tom Verlaine’s spooky ‘Cold Irons Bound’ and the heartbreaking ache of ‘Goin’ to Acapulco’ from My Morning Jacket’s Jim James providing particularly spectacular moments. The painstaking pastiches of various mid-60’s classics provided by, amongst others, Stephen Malkmus and Eddie Vedder might make sense in the film, but here they sound frustratingly pointless, almost like fan letters from frustrated gig-goers who wish Dylan would get over his tendency to rearrange the classics and ease into the nostalgia mode by playing the oldies just like he used to. Dylan himself appearing on the previously unreleased fragment the movie’s named after proves the futility of trying to surpass the vintage recordings - Columbia’s ancient ad slogan “Nobody Sings Dylan like Dylan” is still spot on.