Star gazing

Toby Litt has been obsessed with rock biopics since childhood, but only this year has his devotion t

Me and rock biopics go back a long way. And, right from the beginning, our history has been chequered. In 1980, I was 12 years old, and stuck inside boarding school with the Bedford Blues again. Like all the other junior boys, I was allowed out of Culver House unsupervised for one reason and one reason alone: to get a haircut.

Mysteriously, though, me and Dave Street had been granted special dispensation to go and see a film at the local fleapit - the Granada (long since demolished). I remember this particularly clearly because the film had no conceivable educational value. It was Elvis: the Movie, directed by John Carpenter and starring Kurt Russell.

Most of our free time at the boarding house was spent either watching TV in a basement room that smelled of scalp, orange peel and flood-damaged sofa, or playing pool on the pool table, or table tennis on the closed wooden lid of the pool table. Culver House was not an exciting place. But after an hour of Elvis: the Movie, Dave Street and I were so unfeasibly bored that we walked out of the cinema and returned to our incarceration. Elvis: the Movie was that bad.

At the age of 12, I wanted nothing more than to be a rock star. The recurrent fantasy was that Dave Gilmour would be taken ill, RSI perhaps, and that I'd be asked to join Pink Floyd. Never mind that I couldn't play a single one of his solos. The show must go on!

For me, as for many people, rock biopics are a way of vicariously living out unfulfilled dreams of musical megastardom. Luckily, I found another outlet for these when, ten years ago, I started writing about a fictional Canadian indie band. The tales of their doings and undoings are collected in my next book, I Play the Drums in a Band Called Okay.

As research for this, I watched every rock movie the internet DVD lenders LOVEFiLM had available. These included a fair number of stinkers, perhaps most shamefully of all Rock Star (starring Mark Wahl berg, formerly Marky Mark). I also have to confess to Three Sides Live (Genesis in concert in 1982), Mad Dogs and Englishmen (Joe Cocker, 1971), Hearts of Fire (Bob Dylan's cinematic nadir, 1987) and Oliver Stone's The Doors (1991).

There were, of course, high points, too. Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, for example - a film that manages to take heavy metal beyond Spinal Tap . . . and into an area of even more profound ridiculousness. Or Almost Famous, in which Cameron Crowe cannibalised a decade's-worth of Rolling Stone interviews for such lines as: "I am a Golden God!"

But it hasn't really been until the past couple of years that my abject devotion to the genre has been rewarded. The films I'm particularly thinking of are Anton Corbijn's Control, which looks at the life of Joy Division's Ian Curtis, and Todd Haynes's Bob Dylan biopic I'm Not There, which comes out this month. In them, the rock biopic reaches a new maturity and sophistication. This may be because rock'n'roll itself is dead. While it was in extremely rude health, maturity and sophistication weren't virtues it wanted anything to do with.

You could say that rock biopics were conceived at the very moment silent movies died. After all, The Jazz Singer - the first full-length talkie - establishes the basic "Daddy, I just gotta sing" template. (No doubt this was preceded by "Daddy, I just gotta paint/dance/mime".) Hollywood has always loved musicians.

But there is a particular degree of infatuation that follows the invention of the lightshow. It's easy to forget the basics of cinema: that the essence of it is son et lumière in a large, darkened room. And this it very much has in common with rock music. Dynamic extremes are what both are after. As the title of the Pixies' tour film puts it, loudQUIETloud. Very little in movies is more thrilling than the cut from a deafening scene to a silent one. (The other way is just a cheap shock, and doesn't really work.)

There are other reasons why cinema is fascinated with rock stars. The trajectory of most music industry careers is the kind of rise and fall recommended both by Aristotle's Poetics and any cheap screenwriting manual you care to pick up. Hollywood likes large stories and mythic characters, which rockers of necessity are. The road is a shared archetype.

Also, the film industry is lazy, in love with short cuts and faking things up. If it can abduct a ready-made star from another world (dancing, modelling, even journalism) and turn them into a film star, it will do so without hesi tation. It took just over two years from Elvis Presley recording "That's All Right, Mama" to releasing his first movie, Love Me Tender. By the time Colonel Tom Parker worked his managerial magic, the King was getting $1m per picture. Never mind that the films were rubbish, the deals were masterpieces.

True charisma is a rare quality - and rock stars, who undoubtedly have it, are now and again able to make the leap from stage to screen without too much difficulty. Most of the time, though, they convince only when playing rock stars or aliens (see Mick Jagger in Performance and David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth). What they're not very good at is playing anything day-to-day - particularly playing any person with a normal charisma quotient. The easiest kind of film acting is being a baddie. That's why Vinnie Jones can do it. This involves the school of acting that thinks the main thing you need to do is sneer (see Sting as Feyd-Rautha in David Lynch's Dune).

Control and I'm Not There approach the rock biopic in very different ways. They are almost type and anti-type. Control plays it incredibly straight, relying on the strength of Sam Riley's performance as Ian Curtis. I'm Not There, by contrast, is as fragmented as any mainstream Hollywood movie has ever been.

Famously, it casts six actors as six ages of Dylan. In many ways, both films fit their subject absolutely. Like Joy Division with rock music, Control takes a basic format and does something very pure and stripped-back with it, finding an essence that would otherwise have passed unperceived. Like Dylan, I'm Not There shape-shifts incessantly. It is a film very much made in the editing room. Far more ambitious than Control, it succeeds in doing what me and all the other megastar dreamers always wanted: it stands us inside Dylan's shoes.

The film opens with a point-of-view shot: overexcited young men usher you along a dull corridor; you race up some steep stairs, past the bottom right-hand corner of a vast Stars and Stripes, past a drummer, a bassist and a lead guitarist, and stumble out into the blazing lights of 1966. You are 1966-Dylan - disorientated, comic, melancholy, off on a trip.

And viewing the film as a whole, we can at least allow ourselves the illusion that this is how Dylan remembers his life. Towards the end, Cate Blanchett - who channels 1966 Dylan, right down to contorted hand gestures and incessant eye-rubbing - turns to the camera and says something to the effect that it's all about hexagons. I'm Not There is an object with six sides, but it is a single object. The use of music from one period of Dylan's life to soundtrack moments from earlier or later suggests that there is a continuum of Dylan-ness, despite the skin-shedding. (The one character Dylan has never stripped back to is Robert Allen Zimmerman of Hibbing, Minnesota.)

Yet I would argue that there is a huge split down the middle of the film, and that's between Dylan the American and Dylan the European - specifically, Dylan the Frenchman. One of the six Dylans is "Arthur", Arthur Rimbaud, played by Ben Whishaw. He doesn't interact with any of the other characters. Instead, he addresses the camera directly, epigrammatically. What he is there to assert is not the American self- departure of "I'm not there" but the more radical French self-alienation "Je est un autre". (In No Direction Home, the Scorsese documentary, Dylan uses the translation "I is another".) Because of this, the film might seem to be mistitled. Wouldn't I is Another fit better with the hexagonal approach?

But, in the end, it comes down squarely to Dylan as an American archetype. The oldest of Todd Haynes's actors, Richard Gere, playing Billy (the Kid), is last seen jumping a boxcar and riding off into the purely mythical West. That the "real" Bob Dylan is compelled to go round and round and round the globe on his Never Ending Tour isn't allowed to negate this escape. America wants to believe that it still contains a beyond.

Going back to Control, a film which is all about European constrictions and limitations - Ian Curtis committed suicide on the eve of an American tour. It's pushing it too far to suggest that he couldn't bear the idea of being in America, or, as Heidegger would put it, Being-in-America. But this is undoubtedly the very crux at which Dylan thrives.

There will be more rock biopics in the future. Most of them will be trash, some of them will be great. But all of them will now have to exist between the twin poles of sober and intoxicated, faithful and promiscuous, monochrome and psychedelic, Control and I'm Not There.

I will watch them all.

"I'm Not There" is in cinemas from 21 December

This article first appeared in the 17 December 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2007