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I'm Not There
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Series Of Dreams"
5 stars

Ever since he first burst upon the national consciousness in the early 1960's, people have carefully scouring every aspect of Bob Dylan’s life–his music, his various personas, even his garbage–in an attempt to somehow unlock the meanings behind his often inscrutable lyrics and, by extension, life in general. Even as his career has undergone its share of highs (the mid-1960's, his 1974 comeback tour with The Band and the critical hosannas behind such late-period albums as “Oh Mercy,” “Time Out of Mind” and “Modern Times”) and lows (his slick Vegas showman period, his evangelical period and that ill-advised tour with the Grateful Dead), the mystique surrounding his work has continued to inspire people ranging from anonymous Internet cranks to Martin Scorsese (in his exemplary documentary “No Direction Home”) to try to get to the bottom of what Dylan has trying to say over the years. Hell, even Dylan himself has taken a stab or two at exploring the meanings behind his art through such oddball cinematic efforts as “Renaldo and Clara” and “Masked and Anonymous” and the surprisingly revelatory book “Chronicles,” the highly acclaimed first part of what is promised to be a three-volume autobiography. As a stone-cold Dylan fanatic for as far back as I can remember, I have checked out countless explorations of Dylan and his work over the years but I cannot recall one as utterly fascinating as “I’m Not There,” the brilliant new film from Todd Haynes, whose previous works have included such subversive gems as “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story,” “Velvet Goldmine” and “Far From Heaven.” This is a film in which the name “Bob Dylan” is never uttered once in its 135 minutes and in which he is only seen in the flesh during a few seconds of vintage footage at its conclusion and yet it still comes closer to getting to the bottom of the man, his music and his myths than anything that I can recall reading or seeing.

As you may have heard by now, instead of simply hiring one actor to play Dylan, Haynes has hired a sextet of performers–young, old, male, female, white, African-American–to represent him during different periods in his life and art. Overseeing all the personas is Arthur (Ben Whishaw), the Rimbaud-influenced poet and dreamer whose deadly ironic answer to inane questions from an unseen interviewer serve as a sort of narration for the film. Then there is Woody (Marcus Carl Franklin), a young black child who claims to be Woody Guthrie, hops boxcars with a guitar bearing the slogan “THIS MACHINE KILLS FASCISTS” (a saying that appeared on the actual Guthrie’s guitar) and an endless litany of tall tales about life on the road as a wandering musician that he tells at the drop of a hat to anyone who he comes into contact with. Jack Rollins (Christian Bale) is the singer who inadvertently launched an entire musical and social movement by writing songs that updated the folk sound by using it to sing about contemporary concerns and eventually became so uncomfortable with being pigeonholed as a “protest singer” that he abandoned folk music forever, much to the chagrin of his fans and a former lover/collaborator (Julianne Moore doing a hilarious riff on Joan Baez). Next up is Robbie (Heath Ledger), an actor who becomes an overnight sensation after playing Jack Rollins in a silly 1965 biopic and who finds the role difficult to shake even years down the line. While shooting the film, he meets and falls for Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and begins a troubled relationship with her that lasts about as long as America’s involvement in Vietnam and has roughly the same level of success.

Jude Griffin (Cate Blanchett–yes, Cate Blanchett) represents Dylan during the most controversial and, thanks to the landmark documentary “Don’t Look Back,” familiar period of his career–the point where he electrified his music, literally and metaphorically, in a manner that enraged his former folkie fans, who deemed any break with genre traditions to be a betrayal and who would boo, riot and even attempt to cut the power in their efforts to bring him back to his roots, enchanted new fans, including Allen Ginsberg (David Cross) and underground socialite Coco Rivington (Michelle Williams) and made him a pop-culture sensation. In this incarnation, Jude is at the top of the world but the pressures of those who want him to go back to being a protest singer that they can easily follow behind, journalists who sneeringly insist that he explain everything about himself and dismiss him as a fraud when he won’t (represented here by the tellingly named Mr. Jones, played by Bruce Greenwood) and the need to keep pushing the boundaries further and further bring him to a breaking point of self-destruction. After Jude comes to his inevitable end, he is replaced by Billy (Richard Gere), a Dylan who has retreated from the fast lane–from the modern world, in fact–to live a quiet and peaceful life (as Dylan did when he retreated to Woodstock, NY in the aftermath of his famous motorcycle crash) on his own terms only to discover that no matter how hard he tries to leave the public eye and live his life by his own terms, there are others who want him to live by theirs instead. Finally, there is Pastor John (Bale again), the Dylan that retreated to California in the late 1970's and embraced evangelical Christianity, right down to forsaking his old folk and rock songs for new gospel tunes, in a move that mystifies observers but which finally appears to bring him some measure of peace at last.

With the twin conceits of a fractured narrative style that is less interested in following a historical path than an emotional one and the notion of having multiple actors playing different variations of the same character, “I’m Not There” may sound like an impossibly audacious example of art-house wankery, even when you consider that it is a film made by the same guy who recounted the life and death of Karen Carpenter using Barbie dolls and utilized “Citizen Kane” as a template for his exploration of the glam-rock movement of the 1970's, but Haynes pulls both of them off beautifully. Let’s face it–if there has been one constant to Bob Dylan over the years, it is in the fact that he has never made things easy, for himself or his fans, by taking the most straightforward paths in his journey. Therefore, it doesn’t make any sense for a film chronicling that life to follow the standard path of most biopics. Instead, the screenplay that Haynes and co-writer Oren Moverman approximates the format of Dylan’s finest songs–it eschews telling a simple and easily explained story for a densely packed collection of words and images that bounce off of each other in ways that will resonate in different ways for different people at different times depending on where they are in their lives when they encounter it. Although there is no obvious rhyme or reason as to how the various pieces have been put together, the juxtaposition of the different eras plays beautifully throughout. And like many of Dylan’s songs, there is also a lot of unexpected humor to be found as well–I love the moment when we see a group of Black Panthers sitting by the stereo while trying to deconstruct “Ballad Of A Thin Man.”

As for the performances, what might have come across as an empty gimmick in the wrong hands (such as when Todd Solondz tried a similar tactic in “Palindromes”) instead serves as a brilliant short-hand manner on Haynes’ part to further his story by casting actors whose screen personas effectively blend into the versions of Dylan they have been asked to play. The notion of a young African-American child portraying the faux-hobo Dylan may sound ridiculous but since he is meant to represent the period when Dylan himself was inventing outrageous stories about his past to cover up his actual history, the casting makes a weird sort of sense. (It is also helped by the fact that Marcus Carl Franklin is both an engaging actor and an electrifying musical performer.) Since the folkie Jack Rollins is tortured by the way that he has unwillingly has been cast as the forefather of the protest movement, what better way to represent that than by casting Christian Bale, an actor who has famously embodied intense suffering in such films as “The Machinist” and “Rescue Dawn”? Heath Ledger may not be the first person who leaps to mind as a potential Dylan but he has the matinee idol look of the kind of person who would be cluelessly cast in a glossy biopic as well as the serious acting talent to illustrate how the role continues to haunt him in his personal and professional lives in much the same way that Dylan’s personas have haunted him. As the Dylan-in-hiding, Richard Gere is also a smart choice in the way that his intense star charisma is sadly at odds with the low-key lifestyle that he is finally trying to lead for himself.

However, the standout performance–possibly the performance of the year, in fact–is the one turned in by Cate Blanchett. This may sound like stunt casting at its most extreme but from the first moment that she appears the screen, she owns the role so completely that it may take you a few minutes to realize that it is actually her up there embodying Dylan in his “Blonde On Blonde” era prime. Of course, the idea of Blanchett giving a superb performance is nothing new these days–her work in the last few years has seen her on a roll matched only by Meryl Streep in her heyday–but what she does here goes far beyond any of the work that she has done in the past. Unlike the other Dylans on display in the film, she makes a conscious effort to look and sound like him, a risky move that pays off beautifully with her dead-on approximation of his look and voice. And yet, what she does is no mere impersonation–she simply becomes him in the same way that Robert De Niro became Jake La Motta in “Raging Bull” or Marion Cotillard became Edith Piaf in “La Vie En Rose”–and the result is the absolute high point of a career that has already had more than a few high points to speak of.

Obviously, “I’m Not There” is chock-full of Bob Dylan tunes–some of them original Dylan recordings and others newly recorded covers by a wide range of contemporary artists–but even in this regard, Haynes has gone the extra mile to do something different and unexpected. Instead of giving us the usual collection of familiar tunes, he instead offers us a canny blend of uncontested classics (“All Along the Watchtower,” “Just Like A Woman,” “Positively 4th Street”) as well as lesser-known selections from the Dylan songbook (“Going to Acapulco,” “The Wicked Messenger,” “Man In the Long Black Coat”) that have been chosen for the way that they correspond with the stories that he is telling. In one of the most extraordinary scenes in the entire film, Haynes has selected “Pressing On,” an indifferently received cut from the largely forgotten 1980 gospel album “Saved,” as the song that essentially represents Dylan’s often-misunderstood evangelical period over such comparatively better and certainly better-known songs as “Gotta Serve Somebody” or “Shot of Love.” This was a risky move indeed–bear in mind that this was a tune that Dylan himself has never demonstrated much use for–but during the long sequence in which Pastor John performs it for a group of worshipers, the power of the words finally rings loud and clear and a song that probably drew initial blanks from most fans when it started winds up sounding like one of the essential tunes in the entire canon by the time the scene ends.

Like the man that it celebrates, “I’m Not There” is strange, funny, poetic, hypnotic and absolutely compelling from start to finish and for Todd Haynes, it solidifies his position as one of the most fascinating filmmakers at work today. For Bob Dylan fanatics, the film is obviously essential but even those without much of a working knowledge of the man and his work will find much to savor here. Whether you look at the film as historical fiction, cultural analysis or just as an exceptionally trippy experiment, “I’m Not There” is a dazzling work of art as bold and inventive as anything that has appeared on movie screens in recent memory and may well wind up blowing/expanding minds in much the same way that Dylan himself has done time and again

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=16431&reviewer=389
originally posted: 11/21/07 00:30:29
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

4/25/09 Charlotte I loved it - simply brilliant! 5 stars
10/31/08 Annie G Oh my, a 2 hr 15 min Bob Dylan song, obscure and pretentious. OK for boomers, I guess. 2 stars
7/31/08 Ramone Admirably inventive, but needed to be more free-wheelin' and less academic 3 stars
4/11/08 Katie I thought it was pretty good. It helps if you know something about Bob Dylan to begin with. 4 stars
12/08/07 Betty Egan Terrific film! 5 stars
12/03/07 damalc i think maybe i'm just not enough of a Dylan fan to get it 3 stars
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  21-Nov-2007 (R)
  DVD: 06-May-2008



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