Dylan in America

There was something miraculous about Bob Dylan, circa 1965-66. You can hear it in the albums he recorded in those years, Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, and you can see it in D A Penne­baker's documentary Don't Look Back, which
is the story of someone who is already touched with greatness, but is getting better still. It is unclear how much drugs had to do with it - and the book is a little coy on the subject - but Dylan had completed his autodidact's education in folk music, beatnik-hipsterism and symbolist poetry. He had got the Beatles stoned, Allen Ginsberg had become his court jester and all the sharpest girls in New York were his for the taking. And it was all done with the attitude of the smartest guy in any room, who could produce songs, as he later said, "three or four at a time".

And then something happened. According to the official version, Dylan had a motorcycle accident, after which he retreated to a house in upstate New York. And when he returned to the world, he wasn't quite the same. He would continue, on occasion, to write some great songs, but he would falter, write some truly awful songs, be accused of plagiarism, and take bewildering turns into film-making and born-again Christianity. It was as if Dylan had forgotten how to be Dylan.

Looking back at it now, that movement into revivalist preacherdom doesn't seem quite so baffling. Like an athlete who looks to God's grace (and Dylan is nothing if not a competitor - every offstage frame of Don't Look Back shows him alert for the slightest intellectual or songwriting challenge), he seemed finally to be accepting his need for a helping hand. But it was also a performing strategy. He had done the Woody Guthrie folkie, the post-Kerouac hipster, the rock'n'roller and the Johnny Cash country crooner. The preacherman was only one step along from the carnival huckster-clown he had acted for his Rolling Thunder Revue in the mid-1970s.

Sean Wilentz's peculiarly titled book (where else might we have expected to find Dylan?) claims to be a sort of cultural archaeology, locating its subject in past traditions, and not just musical ones. Wilentz is a professor of history at Princeton, and his manner is at times excessively professorial.

Too often, the reader becomes fidgety and restless as the author conducts one of his dogged excursions to the pre-Dylan source. We are told, for example, that the phrase "sucking the blood of genius and generosity", which Dylan paraphrased on his song "Summer Days", comes from a speech that Abraham Lincoln gave to the Washington Temperance Society. Wilentz draws in a breath and releases a quick history of the said Washington Temperance Society. The point had seemed to be about Dylan's relationship to his sources - at what point does influence become theft? - but Wilentz then digresses into a history of Dylan's appearances at the Newport Jazz Festival, returning to the subject of plagiarism only in the following chapter.

Dylan's own memoir, Chronicles: Volume One (2004), describes his curiosity and appetite for influence with great charm and sometimes evasiveness. But Chronicles itself would be accused of lifting from other writers' work. The range of Dylan's sources in his later periods
is impressive - Ovid, the Southern American civil war poet Henry Timrod, contemporary Japanese yakuza memoirs - but it had always been like this, for Dylan as indeed for his precursors. As Willie McTell said of his own songs, "I jump 'em from other writers, but I arrange 'em my own way."
Wilentz has sincerity, a wide breadth of knowledge and deep enthusiasm, and there are some marvellous photographs here, especially the snapshots of bohemian life in New York City in the early 1960s. But Dylan in America reads more like a collection of articles, reviews and essays than a coherent book.

We learn that Wilentz was very proud to be nominated for a Grammy for his sleeve notes to an authorised release of a Dylan bootleg collection. Those notes form the basis of one of the book's chapters. Another contains a lengthy review of the film Masked and Anonymous (2003), which Dylan acted in and co-wrote, and which is an interesting failure at best. However, there is no mention of Todd Haynes's I'm Not There (2007), which captures the spirit of Dylan's work, with all its episodic dazzle and disjunctions - but then you realise that Wilentz wrote about Masked and Anonymous at the time of its release. Indeed, this book seems to be a rehash of everything he has ever published about Dylan.

It is unclear quite what this - or, indeed, any - Dylan book is for. We don't read books about him for psychological insight because, evidently, there isn't any to be had (appropriately the most insightful biography of Dylan is one that isn't: I'm Not There). We could turn to websites for "analysis" of the lyrics or reminiscences of Dylan's concerts and lists of the source material for his compositions, or for tendentious connections drawn between Dylan and Aaron Copland - even if they won't be written up as elegantly as Wilentz does here. Maybe the point is just to tell us to listen to the music. Halfway through reading this book, I realised I hadn't listened to Blonde on Blonde in years. I'm grateful for the reminder.


Bob Dylan in America
Sean Wilentz
Bodley Head, 400pp, £20

David Flusfeder's most recent novel is "A Film by Spencer Ludwig" (Fourth Estate, £11.99)

This article first appeared in the 04 October 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Licence to cut

Show Hide image

Do you have to look like someone to play them in a film?

Physical resemblance between an actor and the real-life figure they are portraying, but there’s much more to a successful biopic than the right face under a good wig.

The Program is a film in search of a hero. It never really finds one. On one hand it has the crusading journalist David Walsh, played by Chris O’Dowd, who risks the derision of his colleagues and the scorn of the cycling industry to expose Lance Armstrong as a drugs cheat. On the other, it has Armstrong himself (Ben Foster), propelling himself to multiple Tour de France victories and into the hearts of his countrymen by foul means, not fair. It feels hard to root for Walsh: he’s on the side of truth, but he never comes to life as a character, and the movie hits a slump whenever we’re back in the newsroom with him. Then again, we know we shouldn’t get behind the cyclist. But if the film is conflicted over whose story it’s telling, there is at least one element about which there can be no argument: Ben Foster’s resemblance to Armstrong.

It is not a prerequisite that an actor playing a real figure must be able to swap places with them unnoticed in an identity parade, but Foster could certainly pass that test if it were. Both men have their features crammed into the centre of their faces, lending them a concentrated intensity. And Foster has captured the intentness of Armstrong’s expressions – that taut downward curve in the mouth that looks like an exaggerated frown as drawn by a child.

For the biopic performer, there are several options when it comes to physical accuracy. There is the simple, almost effortless mimicry – a classic example being Ben Kingsley in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi. (There have been occasions on which newspapers have printed pictures of Kingsley to accompany a story about the real Gandhi. Let’s blame that on the actor’s persuasive ability to inhabit the part, rather than any laziness in the media.)


Where there is no overwhelming natural similarity, this can be helped along by a recognisable accoutrement or physical characteristic. I wouldn’t swear that Robert Downey Jnr was the spit of Charlie Chaplin (in another Attenborough film, Chaplin).


Or that you couldn’t tell Salma Hayek from Frida Kahlo (in Frida) but it certainly helped that the former had that universally familiar toothbrush-moustache to trick our eyes, and the latter sported a convincing unibrow.


Even once the physical side is in the bag, there is the matter of poise and demeanour to consider. Did Helen Mirren look like Elizabeth II in The Queen (another Frears) or on stage in The Audience? Not especially. But then the bit that isn’t covered by hair, make-up, wardrobe and physiognomy is called “acting”. It should, if all goes according to plan, render cosmetic objections irrelevant. Look at Gary Oldman with the black porcupine spikes and milky-white pallor of Sid Vicious in Sid & Nancy. We can see that’s a fancy-dress Sid. But Oldman’s self-belief pushes him, and us, over the line. We buy it. His Joe Orton (Frears yet again: Prick Up Your Ears) is even better, perhaps because he shares with the playwright a natural knowingness that lights them both up from within.

My own favourite sorts of biopic actors are those that succeed through sheer force of will. They don’t look like the people they’re playing, and only the most cursory attempts have been made to convince us they do, but their own internal conviction overrides any complaint. Anthony Hopkins did a fine job of playing the lead in Surviving Picasso but I prefer him in two movies where he had to take more of a running jump: Nixon in Nixon and Hitchcock in Hitchcock. No one ever said about Richard Nixon and Anthony Hopkins: “Isn’t it funny how you never see them in the same room?” But there was something in the slightly delusional casting that made sense in a film about Nixon – never a man, after all, to face the truth when he thought a bald lie would do the job just as well. And by the end of Oliver Stone’s impressively controlled movie, Hopkins had done it. He had strong-armed the audience and bent the whole endeavour to his will. The same was true in Hitchcock: he expanded into a part as though it were an oversized suit he was convinced he could fill. It was a confidence trick. Doesn’t that go for most acting?

It doesn’t always work. Philip Seymour Hoffman as Capote? The physical disparity is so great (compare it to Toby Jones, far better-suited to the role, in Infamous, which opened around the same time) that it seems to make the effort visible. Sean Penn as Harvey Milk in Gus Van Sant’s Milk? Just about. The bubbly enthusiasm of the performance is very winning, just as Milk himself was; it’s a charm offensive, a campaign. Like Hopkins as Nixon, it suits the part. Denzel Washington as Malcolm X in the Spike Lee film of the same name? Yes: he has the looks and the charisma. Josh Brolin as George W Bush in (Stone again) W? Remarkably, yes, even though he’s too bulky. His physicality is reduced magically by the character’s small-mindedness and inexperience. Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland is good but he’s too actorly and not terrifying enough – unlike Yaphet Kotto in the same role in Raid on Entebbe.

Awards season is upon us, so there will be more games of compare-and-contrast: Johnny Depp as the criminal James “Whitey” Bulger in Black Mass, Michael Fassbender in Steve Jobs. Don’t talk to me about Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Phillipe Petit in The Walk. Good film but why have they tinkered digitally with the actor’s imploring eyes? He looks like a motion-capture version of himself at times. But no one can seize the Complete Lack of Physical Resemblance prize from Benedict Cumberbatch, who seems not to even believe in himself as Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate.

Though with his elfin eyes and silver mane, Cumberbatch is a shoo-in if they ever make Legolas: The Later Years.

“The Program” is released 16 October.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.