Moriarty Falls In Step With WALK HARD And Bends His Brain On I’M NOT THERE!
Published at: Dec. 26, 2007, 2:20 a.m. CST by Moriarty
Hey, everyone. “Moriarty” here.
The biopic is dead.
Specifically, the music biopic is dead.
Even more specifically, the Academy Awards bait music biopic is dead.
And this Christmas, you have a chance to see not one but two brilliant stakes in the heart of the Academy Awards bait music biopic. You know a particular subcategory of film is dead when a couple of things happen. First, when the parody appears. Second, it’s when the smarty-pants art house nerds start making “deconstructions,” reactionary braniac farts in the face of convention that lay bare the clichés and that reinvent things for ironic impact.
I’ve written about parody before and gotten a fair amount of hate mail because I’m not a fan of the broad, obvious lowbrow stuff that dominates the release schedule right now. Oh, SCARY MOVIE, what have though wrought? EPIC MOVIE. DATE MOVIE. Truly Awful Movies. And I’m sorry, FAMILY GUY fans, but I sort of hate the shit out of Seth McFarlane’s version of parody, which is sort of like sitting in a room with a really obnoxious giant loud guy who keeps saying “HEY, DID YOU EVER SEE THAT MOVIE WHERE THIS THING HAPPENED?” with one movie after another movie after another TV show after another Internet viral video after another movie after another TV shot ad infinitum.
But I love good parody done well. I think it’s when it degenerates into spoof that I hate it. I think something like TOP SECRET! is about as good as parody gets. I think YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN sets the bar as far as parody on film goes. I think the ZAZ guys never hit it as hard as they did in the pre-POLICE SQUAD era, but when they did it well, nobody did it better.
WALK HARD isn’t quite as great a film as YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, but as parody goes, it’s razor-sharp and beautifully crafted. Jake Kasdan is, all things considered, a fucking badass. I’m not sure enough people appreciate this fact yet, but we’re talking about a guy in his early 30s who has four features under his belt and an assload of really, really, really good television. When your first film is ZERO EFFECT, you are pretty much a badass right off the bat. When you follow that up with FREAKS AND GEEKS, some of the best episodes including the pilot, you are definitely a badass. ORANGE COUNTY was a solid double, and THE TV SET, which I saw this year on DVD, is a fairly perceptive x-ray of the insecurities and anxieties of the TV pilot season. WALK HARD is the biggest thing he’s ever shot, and it’s impeccably crafted in the way it mimics the look and feel of big-budget studio biopics. Uta Briesewitz’s cinematography is so good at capturing that precise superslick extracheesy studio look, the look that routinely ends up being Oscar-nominated, that the Academy really should pay attention to what he did. The same is true of the work by production designer Jefferson Sage. This level of precision is just as hard to pull off as recreating historical era or creating a fantasy or science-fiction world.
The script by Judd Apatow and Kasdan is diabolically smart. And if I have any hesitation in recommending this film, it’s that I think it might be an inside joke on an inside joke on an inside joke. There’s a PET SOUNDS sequence in here that is so crazy and so specific... and it pretty much demolished me. I love how the “celebrity cameos” are all batshit crazy. Jack White’s Elvis, Jack Black’s Paul McCartney, Jason Schwartzman’s Ringo Starr, Frankie Muniz’s Buddy Holly... they are all simultaneously cringingly terrible and dead-on perfect. The real music figures who show up, like Jewel and Ghostface Killah and Lyle Lovett and The Temptations (in the single most groant-worthy joke in Apatow’s entire filmography) and Eddie Vedder (who must have more of a sense of humor than I ever expected to pull off the scene he takes part in) all come across as sly and smart for participating.
Most importantly, WALK HARD is a good film on its own terms, which gives it life beyond just being good parody. Dewey Cox is a character worth the expenditure of two hours, a story genuinely worth telling.
John C. Reilly impressed me last year in TALLADEGA NIGHTS, matching Will Ferrell pound-for-pound in terms of bugfuck crazy. It was an inventive and layered performance, and it was one of the first times I realized how fall-down funny Reilly can be. He’s done sharp musical work before in films like A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION and CHICAGO, and he’s done great dramatic work throughout his career, so you add those things to his newly-defined comic chops, and he makes the perfect Dewey Cox. When he actually plays the “big Oscar moments,” he plays them straight, the same way he would in the “real” version of this film, and that’s what makes it work. Jenna Fischer has been gradually working her way towards a starring role in a big comedy like this, and she really steps up. If you’re one of the millions of guys harboring a shameless crush on Fischer thanks to her work on THE OFFICE, you will be more than pleased with the way they sex her up for this film, and she plays every level of the joke just as well as Reilly does. I love the casting of Raymond J. Barry as Dewey’s father, since that’s exactly who they’d cast for the “real” version of this movie. There’s tremendous work done by Kristen Wiig, Chris Parnell, Tim Meadows, Matt Besser, David Krumholtz, Harold Ramis, Craig Robinson...
Oh, that reminds me.
THE BACKLASH HAS BEGUN!
As with THIS IS SPINAL TAP, the thing that frosts this particular cake is the music. In a film like this, if you don’t buy the music... if it doesn’t work as credible songwriting on its own, above and beyond any joke involved... then the entire thing would collapse. Here, you’ve got guys like Marshall Crenshaw, Michael Andrews, Van Dyke Parks, Dan Bern, and Mike Viola all contributing songs to the film, working together and separately, and as a result, the film accurately parodies all sorts of songwriting styles and various eras of film, and the songs end up imbedding themselves in your consciousness by the time you walk out of the theater.
And, as I advise with many films, stay till the very, very end for a glimpse of the real Dewey Cox so you can compare Reilly’s performance. I love it when filmmakers do that, like when the real Nixon emerges from the White House at the end of Oliver Stone’s film, and it’s always fun to make the comparison. The strongest endorsement you can give the film is that while I was watching it, I was wondering what anyone currently planning to make a music biopic is going to do. I mean, no one can ever do the movie that WALK HARD is making fun of again. How can you? How can you do that showbiz biopic the same way after seeing it laid so bare? How could anyone make that film with a straight face again? I’m sure someone will... and I’m equally sure that I’ll be fighting off the giggles the entire time I watch it unfold.
One solution is to go completely fucking crazy and just destroy the standard approach, which is what Todd Haynes has done to dizzying, swoony effect with I’M NOT THERE, his love letter to the Legend of Bob Dylan. Haynes didn’t make a movie about the real Dylan. I think his movie argues that the real Dylan is unknowable, and that it’s not something that is unique to Dylan. There was a moment, sometime around high school, when I realized quite clearly that we spend our lives being different people depending on the situations we’re in and the people we’re with. It’s not a bad thing, per se... it’s just true. We all contain contradictions, and there’s no doubt that you act differently when you’re sitting in church with your family or sitting in a bar with your friends. When I have dinner with my parents, I feel like a totally different person than when I go to the park with my son. And when you live your life on the public stage and they expect you to play a certain role all the time, it can lead to the most remarkable reactions.
I remember when I got my hands on BIOGRAPH, the box set collection of much of Dylan’s most important music. This had to have been sometime in the mid-to-late ‘80s. Back then, I didn’t just buy music and play it occasionally, the way I do now. I would devour music. I would buy someone’s entire body of work and dig into it obsessively, analyzing the lyrics and setting things into context by reading about the person and their history, listening to things chronologically to see how someone developed their sound. Yes, I was a pretentious twat in my teens. I’m sure some of you would say that’s just when I began. But at any rate, Dylan was one of the most fascinating guys to do that with because of the way he had so deftly played with image throughout his career. Dylan understood iconography and the value of mythmaking on an instinctual level, and when he first arrived on the music scene, he already brought with him a richly imagined history that he convincingly sold to everyone he met. I would not call myself a Dylan expert or even a Dylan fan, but I certainly like many of his songs and respect his place in rock history.
Todd Haynes, though... oh, man, does he love Bob Dylan and everything he represents. I like Haynes a hell of a lot as a filmmaker... I think he’s smart and he’s got great taste and an awesome sense of how to set a tone for a film. SAFE is one of my favorite films of the ‘90s, and I think SUPERSTAR is so much more than just a gimmick. In a way, I’M NOT THERE offers up a fascinating bookend to SUPERSTAR as a way of framing his whole career thus far. SUPERSTAR was a pretty unconventional way of telling the story of Karen Carpenter, and the major difference between that film and I’M NOT THERE (aside from the obvious growth in technical mastery on the part of Haynes) is that SUPERSTAR is an angry film. You can tell that part of him hates Carpenter for what she did to herself and what she represents. The film mocks her just as much as it empathizes with her, and you can tell that Haynes probably started writing with her as a target, and only through the act of writing did he come to a more humane idea about who she was. With I’M NOT THERE, he must have started from a position of awe, because much of the film indulges the Dylan myth more than it deflates it. By now, I’m sure you know the film’s main conceit: six actors portray six different faces of Bob Dylan at six points in his life. But don’t make the mistake of thinking this is a film that hinges on the gimmick.
It’s not even like that’s a new idea. Todd Solondz tried something similar a few years ago with the very, very strange PALINDROMES, and even though I got it intellectually, the film just didn’t work for me. I never thought he made full use of the idea. Haynes, on the other hand, seems completely comfortable with the idea, and it’ll illuminating the way he chooses who to use and when and why. Decoding that is part of the fun of the film, and what impressed me is how you don’t need to know anything about the “real” Bob Dylan to appreciate this movie. All you need to know is actually in the film for you. Just watch the film, and you’ll learn about this character, and when you see the contrasts and the similarities between the various faces, the various actors, you get the picture of the overall person. Some of the interpretations, like Richard Gere’s “Billy the Kid,” are abstract, but I don’t understand the rancor some people have towards that part of the film. I love the particular version of the Old West that it evokes, and I think Gere does great work. This is the Gere I like more and more as he gets older, the Gere who plays sort of weird and who makes really interesting, provocative choices. I really like Marcus Carl Franklin, who plays Dylan as a young black child named Woody Guthrie. If that makes you think of the opening of a Steve Martin movie, that’s fine. Haynes knows it’s an absurd premise, as ridiculous at first as the scene where young Dewey Cox first sings the blues in WALK HARD.
But performance after performance, Haynes and his cast nail it. Ben Whishaw gives great glower as Arthur Rimbaud, Christian Bale is flat-out amazing as the charismatic Jack Rollins and the reborn Pastor John, Heath Ledger perfectly mines any anxieties he may have had any reason to recently feel about marriage, and Kris Kristofferson is spot on as the narrator of the film. If that’s all the film was, the sum of those presences, it would be a success.
Jude Quinn is the most recognizable and iconic of the Bob Dylans in the film. DON’T LOOK BACK pretty much defines the Dylan of the ‘60s, at least visually, and that’s Jude Quinn. I honestly don’t think it matters one way or another that Cate is the wrong gender... she embodies that particular moment of Dylan in a way that is so accurate, so rich and real, that it’s almost scary. It's a physical thing, but it's deeper than that. There's something behind the eyes in the few glimpses we get, in the insouciance, the rock star swagger and the willful surrealism. She just plain gets it right, and it’s a pleasure to watch her work. When she’s engaged, there are very few actors working today who are as interesting to watch as Blanchett.
What I enjoyed most about the film is the way it set Haynes free to play, and this is a filmmaker who seems to love to change his style completely from film to film, vanishing in service of what he’s trying to say. He’s a great visual stylist, but he never seems to repeat himself. Here, he’s able to tell the story six different ways... well, seven, actually, if you consider the two halves of the Christian Bale story, which are fairly different. It gives Haynes an opportunity to mix it up, and he is able to indulge his vision fully. I’m sure there are people who won’t respond to the meal that Haynes has laid out along with his artistic collaborators Oren Moverman (co-screenplay), Ed Lachman (D.P.), Jay Rabinowitz (editor) and Judy Becker (production designer), but I don’t see why you wouldn’t want to enjoy with them. There are a lot of heavy films playing this season, and more coming in the next few weeks, and I’M NOT THERE may sound like a head game more than a movie. But give it a chance. This is joyous filmmaking, a celebration of what one artist means to a whole group of artists, and also a potent look at how we all struggle to come to grips with who we really are when we’re alone with our dreams and regrets.
I’ve got at least one more review for you before Christmas, so I’d better get writing if I plan to finish...