Ask A Music Critic: Will Timothée Chalamet Be Good At Playing Bob Dylan?

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As I’m sure you noticed, viral photos of Timothée Chalamet dressed up as Bob Dylan on the set of the upcoming movie A Complete Unknown were everywhere online this weekend. Lots of people fired off jokes, but I’m honestly curious to see this movie. I know you’re a major Dylan head so I figure you must have an opinion on this. Do you think Timothée Chalamet will be good at playing Bob Dylan? — Carrie from Charlotte

You’re right, I do have an opinion about this. I have thought a lot about the Timothée Chalamet Bob Dylan movie. I have thought way too much about the Timothée Chalamet Bob Dylan movie, probably. I have also thought a lot about Bob Dylan biopics that exist only in my imagination. (More on that in a minute.)

Do I think Timothée Chalamet will be good at playing Bob Dylan? My answer for now is, of course, I don’t know. I’m going to wait and see. What I do know is that I have made two decisions regarding A Complete Unknown. One, I will make fun of it relentlessly in the run-up to the film. (The funniest part of the Chalamet photos is the scarf. It’s practically a Lenny Kravitz-sized scarf! The movie should be called Tangled Up In Scarf.) Two, I will see it opening weekend with the hopes of enjoying myself. Because I like to enjoy myself, and I want this film to be an enjoyable time. As my friend Harry recently said, this movie might be great, which would be fun. But it might also be terrible, which would also be fun. (Possibly more fun!)

There’s also a third option, which I actually think is the most likely outcome: This movie will be well-made and competently acted, though ultimately nondescript and forgettable. I’m basing this speculative opinion on the pedigree of writer-director James Mangold, who has made one movie I love (Cop Land), some movies I like (3:10 To Yuma, Logan) and at least one movie that put me to sleep (Indiana Jones And The Dial Of Destiny). But the most pertinent part of his filmography for this conversation is obviously Walk The Line, the Johnny and June Cash movie starring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon that he put out in 2005.

I saw Walk The Line twice that year, and not once since. I remember liking it, but whenever I try to picture the film in my mind I only see scenes from Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. That movie did to Walk The Line and similar biopics what Airplane did to the Airport franchise and other disaster movies. Walk Hard retroactively made Walk The Line seem ridiculous. It didn’t put the biopic genre out of business, exactly, but it did forever affect how these movies are viewed and discussed. And Walk Hard definitely colors my early feelings about Mangold’s Dylan film. Is this going to be the sort of corny biopic that awkwardly shoehorns famous lyrics into the dialogue? (“I know that kid looks like he’s freewheelin’, but a hard rain’s gonna fall when the world hears his songs!” “Don’t think twice … he’ll be alright.”) I hope not. But if it is, I hope it does that a lot, to maintain the aforementioned great/terrible “fun” binary.

The best thing about Walk The Line is the acting by the leads. Phoenix was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar and Witherspoon won for Best Actress, and they both deserved the honors. A Complete Unknown similarly rests on Chalamet, who I’m sure sees this movie as his big Oscar play. Like Phoenix as Cash, Chalamet reportedly will forego lip-syncing and sing as Dylan. If he nails it, the movie will work. If he turns in a hacky impersonation, the movie will sink. It’s as simple as that.

So: Will Timothée Chalamet be good at playing Bob Dylan? As I see it, he faces two major challenges. The first challenge is Bob Dylan’s contradictory nature. He is one of the most charismatic and inviting performers in rock history, and also one of the most awkward and surly. He has a formidable presence, and also a comically slight body. He is the most eloquent lyricist ever, and also an extremely confusing conversationalist. If you film him from a certain direction, he is one gawky looking dude. If you film him from a different direction, he is one striking rock star. The point of fiction is to take the messiness of reality and give it an orderly three-act structure. But Bob Dylan has more successfully resisted order than any great American artist of the last 100 years. Can Timothée Chalamet capture all that? I’m keeping an open mind but I have my doubts.

The second challenge is that A Complete Unknown will focus on Dylan’s early and mid-1960s period, aka the most iconic era of his or any other rocker’s career. As with any icon, it’s very difficult to present this kind of character as a real human being. Simply by putting on the ’60s Dylan costume, you are immediately butting up against a well-worn caricature. From there, the path to Walk Hard-esque silliness is short and wide. You can already see it in the paparazzi photos from the set. Self-parody is a near-impossible path to avoid.

I get why Mangold would pick the Dylan guise that is most likely to resonate with a mass audience. But it’s also the very decision that might cripple his film. I believe there are superior Dylan biopics to be made about other parts of his life and career. Not only are these movies more interesting and entertaining, they don’t have the “iconic caricature” problem that A Complete Unknown has.

Here are the five imaginary Bob Dylan biopics that exist (for now) only in my head.

1. A Basement Tapes Hangout Movie/Buddy Comedy (dir. Richard Linklater)

The best Bob Dylan movie — not counting Larry Charles’ Masked & Anonymous, which reiterates my earlier point about how only Dylan himself can embody Bob Dylan’s singular Dylan-ness — is Inside Llewyn Davis, in which he does not appear until the final minutes (and the audience only gets a glancing look). This movie would be sort of like that. Dylan is in it, but he’s a supporting character in an overall ensemble that includes the members of The Band and various other citizens of the Woodstock community cira 1967. The vibe is similar to Dazed And Confused and Everybody Wants Some!!, with lots of awesome guys in cool clothes hanging out, getting wasted, and having an incredible time, all while recording “Apple Suckling Tree” in the basement of Big Pink.

2. Marriage Drama That Takes Place Between Nashville Skyline and Before The Flood (dir. Noah Baumbach)

Think Marriage Story, only it’s about Bob Dylan stepping away from stardom for several years to be a family man, only to get sucked back into the rock ‘n’ roll show-business machine in the mid-’70s and wrecking his home life in the process. The film opens with Dylan pulling Stephen Stills and Tim Drummond into a hotel room and playing them songs from the not-yet-released Blood On The Tracks. We then do a flashback to happier days for Bob and Sara Dylan as they have kids and raise a family, and trace Bob’s journey from seclusion to his return to the road. The film ends back in the hotel room where a severely coked-out Stills says, “These songs aren’t very good.”

3. Intense Paul Schrader-Scripted Spiritual Drama About Bob Dylan’s Conversion To Christianity (dir. Martin Scorsese)

This movie also centers on a scene in a hotel room. Only this time it’s a room in Tucson in 1978, Bob is sitting alone. He feels miserable. He says to the room’s empty blackness, “I need something tonight.” He reaches into his pocket and removes a crucifix that a fan threw on stage at his concert the night before. Suddenly, he senses the hand of God come over him. It’s a physical act. He feels it. He suddenly feels charged to spread the good word through his music. Many people think he’s crazy, but Bob does not care. Think The Last Temptation Of Christ, only this time the man who hears voices isn’t literally the holy savior. (He is merely rock’s savior.)

4. The Fall And Rise Of 1980s Bob Dylan (dir. The Safdie Brothers)

This film takes place entirely on one day. It is the day that Bob Dylan records “‘We Are The World.” At the start of the film, he looks sweaty and puffy and lost. He is drinking way too much. He suspects his next album, Empire Burlesque, is not very good. He gets to the studio and is surrounded by celebrities. You feel his stress and anxiety as he tries to sing but can’t. The audience spirals as he spirals. It looks as though he might die, figuratively and perhaps even literally, while standing in the vicinity of Huey Lewis and Kim Carnes. Will he survive? The film will hold you in suspense until the final frame. (Bob, naturally, is played by Adam Sandler.)

5. Comedy-Drama About Almost Dying In The Mid-’90s, And Then Making Time Out Of Mind (dir. The Coen Brothers)

The spiritual sequel to Inside Llewyn Davis, only the tone is closer to A Serious Man, i.e. deadpan comedy about the meaning (and meaninglessness) of life and the absence of God with stark, apocalyptic overtones. It is essentially a comeback story, about a guy who nearly perishes in a hospital bed and then makes one of the most acclaimed albums of his life. But the vibe isn’t exactly triumphant. It it melancholy, even tragic. The longest scene takes place in a diner where Bob flirts with a waitress. It is, like the rest of the movie, very funny and very sad.