I’m Not There (2007)
Starring: Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Marcus Carl Franklin, Richard Gere, Heath Ledger, Ben Whishaw, David Cross, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Bruce Greenwood, Julianne Moore, Michelle Williams
Directed by: Todd Haynes
The celebrity biopic, particularly the rock star variety, has become a staple of the cinema of late, most of them following the same familiar trajectory and plot line, so much so that 2007 saw a spoof movie created about them, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. Earlier this year, Anton Corbjin broke away from the standard pop star biopic with Control, largely because his subject (Ian Curtis) didn’t have the same career trajectory as others. With I’m Not There, Todd Haynes goes one step further, and completely destroys the typical biopic mold with a wildly imaginative and experimental look into the many lives of Bob Dylan.
In doing so, Haynes presents Dylan as six different characters played by six different actors, none of whom are named “Bob Dylan” in the film. Eleven-year-old Marcus Carl Franklin plays “Woody Guthrie”, representing the early stages of Dylan’s career and the mythology the young Robert Zimmerman invented for himself to establish his folk music roots, centred around his admiration for folk music legend Woody Guthrie. Ben Winshaw represents Dylan the poet as “Arthur Rimbaud”, after the nineteenth century poet that Dylan admired. Christian Bale plays “Jack Rollins”, a young folk singer in Dylan’s “voice of his generation” phase, until Rollins leaves the protest movement, eventually becoming Pastor Jack, representing Dylan’s born-again phase. Heath Ledger plays “Robbie Clark”, an actor who became famous playing Jack Rollins in a movie, representing the recently-divorced Dylan dealing with the pressures of celebrity. Richard Gere gives the film’s most surreal performances as “Billy the Kid”, a clear reference to Dylan’s role in Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, in what is a representation of the older, reticent Dylan who withdrew from celebrity into the weird America in his head. Finally, Cate Blanchett provides the film’s showiest performance as “Jude Quinn”, the post-electric Dylan circa Don’t Look Back, having to deal with a stand-offish audience and media who rejected Dylan for making rock songs.
Haynes’ experiment doesn’t end with breaking down Dylan’s life into six different roles. He also shoots the different stories on different film stock and in different styles, switching from colour to black and white, framing portions as a documentary (a la Martin Scorsese‘s No Direction Home), others like D.A. Pennebaker‘s Don’t Look Back, while others mix in Fellini, Warhol, and Godard. The scenes and performances all mix together without much regard to narrative, jumbling together with all the frustrating incoherence of, well, a Bob Dylan song, open to numerous interpretations, all and none of which may be correct.
If you’re going into the movie looking to finally figure out what the deal with this Bob Dylan guy was anyway, then you probably shouldn’t even bother. You’ll have a hard enough time figuring out what the deal is with this movie called I’m Not There, without trying to piece together the details of Dylan’s life, which are interspersed with fantasy sequences and apocryphal stories that have surrounded the myth of Bob Dylan over the years. A lot of what’s presented won’t make sense from a historical perspective unless you’re already versed in Dylan lore, and even then, you’ll need some time to process it all to figure out how the pieces add up, and decide whether they do or not.
Instead, you should watch this movie either if A) you’re a Bob Dylan fan (which I am), or you’re ready to embrace some truly inspired and unique filmmaking (which I was). Haynes ability to turn not just the biopic, but narrative film itself, on its ear is quite thrilling, presenting a film that forces its audience to do a lot of work to keep up with what’s going on, all the while accepting that not everything that’s going on makes any sense. Strong performances guide you through the giant mind-fuck on screen, from Blanchett’s dead-on impersonation to Ledger’s work as a troubled movie star estranged from his daughters (made a lot more haunting due to Ledger’s recent death). For fans, it’s fun to pick out the elements on screen with what you know of Dylan’s past, including Julianne Moore as Joan Baez stand-in “Alice Fabian”, Michelle Williams as Eddie Sedgewick stand-in “Coco Rivington”, or the time at the Newport Folk Music Festival when Pete Seeger had to be restrained from taking an axe to the cables giving Dylan and his band power for their instruments (an incident that probably never quite happened the way legend states).
I really can’t say how the movie will play for non-fans, other than those who are fans of avant-guard cinema. The movie is more about the myth and legend surrounding Bob Dylan than it is about Dylan himself, so I imagine it would grow quite tiresome to see two hours and fifteen minutes of hero worship and deifying of someone you’re not already invested in. From the conceit of having multiple characters of different ages, races, and sexes play the same character, you can probably already guess that I’m Not There is a fairly pretentious film, and you’d be right to assume so. Imagine all the rhapsodical praise that has been heaped on Dylan by grad students and aging hipsters, now imagine some weird art kid made a surrealist film based on that praise, then ask yourself if that’s a movie you’d like to see.
Even as a fan, I’ll admit that not everything in the movie works (a mid-movie music video style sequence featuring Bruce Greenwood to the tune of “Ballad of a Thin Man” was a particularly egregious misstep), and I’d say it drags on at least twenty minutes too long. What started as thrillingly adventurous began to feel unnecessarily dense at times (particularly in the much-besieged Gere segment), running on fumes for a bit for seemingly little other reason than there were more moments and songs that Haynes wanted to check off. It’s an extremely imperfect film, much like most of Bob Dylan’s records, and not necessarily one I’ll be lining up to see again anytime soon.
But there’s no way for me to see this ambitious, challenging, and incomparable film as anything but a success. Backed by uniformly excellent performances, visually compelling sequences, and, of course, a dynamite soundtrack, I’m Not There is a singular cinematic experience, as enigmatic and innovative as the man who serves as its subject.