Enough With the Bob Dylan Biopics

Hey, Hollywood: Bob Dylan is still alive, and so overdone that I’m concerned for our collective creativity.
January 16, 2020, 4:25pm
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Photos: Getty Images / Composite by VICE Staff

Last Monday, Deadline announced that Timothée Chalamet of Little Women and chiseled jawline fame will play Bob Dylan in a biopic about the singer's life during his transition from folk music to rock fame. This is a good time to remind everyone that Dylan is a) still alive and b) so overdone that I’m concerned for our creativity.

We have Martin Scorsese’s 2005 documentary, which takes three-and-a-half hours to chronicle Dylan’s career from 1961 to 1966. (Take your pick between that and The Irishman for a movie to fall asleep to.) We have last year’s two-and-a-half hour pseudo-documentary, Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story, also directed by Scorsese. A source close to Dylan told Rolling Stone (which was, yes, named after the Dylan song), “we hope that people will watch it several times to unlock its various Easter eggs.” No, thank you.

We have tour documentaries from Dylan’s 1965 concert tour in England, 1966 tour in the U.K. with The Hawks, and 1980 North American tour that was weirdly tinged with born-again Christianity. We have Todd Haynes’ impressionistic biopic I’m Not There, starring six actors as six incarnations of Dylan, including Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, and Cate Blanchett, who acted with a sock down her pants and was impeccable. I’m Not There is the best of them all, because Haynes goes beyond the hype of the man to interrogate the music and its meanings. A biopic is, after all, a dramatization and interpretation. With so much noise already surrounding that figure, why keep piling on the layers, real or fabricated? In 2007, Haynes told the Times that he was bored by most of them: “A biopic is always weaving these overdetermined moments with these moments we don’t know…Ray Charles at the piano, Ray Charles at home.”

Maybe Haynes realized that the fantasy of Dylan, in particular, has gotten old, especially for those of us who never felt a part of it to begin with. My relationship to the Bob Mob—also known as the Dylanites, Freewheelers, and Zimmsters—is fraught. It might not be such a sore subject if I hadn’t been coerced into one too many screenings of “‘My Back Pages’ Live at Madison Square Garden.” Or Jimmy Fallon’s impersonation, as if I care about either of them.

Look, he’s saved to my Spotify. I love that he offered poets like Allen Ginsburg a bigger platform. I admire the risk of a publicly anti-establishment persona. But the cult of men and boys who worship him don’t tend to welcome freewheelin’ women into the echelons of ‘great artists.’ The ex-boyfriend who liked to play Slow Train Coming during sex is the same one who would have chosen David Foster Wallace over me. Do the Dylan stans you know listen to female folk artists, or any women musicians at all?

The r/bobdylan subreddit is flooded with sadboy stories like this one:

“I had met this girl at [a] party because I was playing 'Like A Rolling Stone' on the guitar and she sang along…I messaged her the next day, saying I enjoyed singing with her and that we should get coffee. I couldn’t stop thinking about her, because it’s not often I meet someone who wants to sing and talk about Dylan with me...Anyways she just messaged me back saying she’s too busy with work and school to pursue anything right now. Ho hum, I feel lonely and felt like posting on here because I love the Dylan community.”

The “Dylan community” is obsessed with an American mythology that I never felt included me. Songs like “Lay Lady Lay” imagine women as nameless metaphors, not subjects, and that feels far from revolutionary.

Going Electric, James Mangold’s current title for the forthcoming biopic, is slated for 2021. My male roommate—who felt obligated to remove the Dylan poster above his bed when he graduated college but has yet to replace it with anything, meaning he sleeps under a framed piece of cardboard—is displeased with the choice of Chalamet. But will he still watch it? Of course. Dylan fans are relentless; that’s why the remakes are profitable. And will I watch it with my other friends, even though we're not Zimmsters ourselves? Of course. Our love for Timothée is undying, and apparently he’s learning to play the guitar for the part. There lies the thirst trap that Hollywood has laid: Studio execs know that the more Chalamet-driven zoomer girls and millennial women don’t care about the Fender Stratocaster fiasco at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, and that women are the most important cinema-going audience there is.

The other trap at hand is the “true story” genre. Mangold is something of an expert, with Ford v. Ferrari (about automotive designer Carroll Shelby and his British driver) garnering big-ticket Oscar nominations on Monday. He also adapted Johnny Cash’s autobiographies for Walk the Line, and Girl, Interrupted from the popular memoir to the 1999 film starring Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie. It’s a formula: searing story—already proven popular with its literary success—meets well-known celebrities. Sold.

It's also a very hot moment for the musical biopic (see: Rocketman, Bohemian Rhapsody)—yet another reason why this millionth iteration of the “Bob Dylan film” isn’t surprising.

I want to see a biopic about Vashti Bunyan, a Bob Dylan contemporary with track titles like “Girl’s Song in Winter.” Let’s cast Alexa Demie as Joan Baez. How is it possible that no one has made a Joni Mitchell movie? (The fact that she rejected Taylor Swift as her stand-in does not count.)

The times have a’changed, Hollywood. In with the new.