Written by: Lance Carmichael, CC2K Staff Writer
Any biopic about a figure as culturally seismic as Bob Dylan is destined to be swallowed under the tide and relegated to footnote status in the icon’s wake. There’s only two kinds of people who try these thing: the workmanlike directors who are just trying to latch onto something that will generate publicity (did the Beatles really need Backbeat?) or the insanely ambitious. I’m Not There—a film by arthouse darling Todd Haynes, starring six actors as Bob Dylan—falls into the latter category.
Let me cut right to the chase. In my position as a consumer advocate, I can tell you exactly how much you’ll like this movie, because it depends on two things: 1) how much you like experimentation in feature films and 2) how much you like Bob Dylan.
Dylan is portrayed in this film by Marcus Carl Franklin, Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Heath Ledger, Ben Wishaw, and Richard Gere. Each actor stars in a section done in a different style correspondent to the era of Dylan’s career it’s about. It’s a smart approach (and one indirect enough to get Dylan’s blessing, cooperation, and song rights on) since one of the things so endlessly fascinating about Dylan is how he kept shifting shapes just when people had him pigeonholed (although hopefully we won’t have to sit through a movie about Madonna done in this same way some day). You’ve got the pre-fame Dylan (Franklin, a black child actor, naturally), the folkie Dylan (Bale), the Don’t Look Back Dylan (Blanchett), the post-motorcycle accident, reclusive “Basement Tapes” Dylan (Ledger), the Born Again Dylan (Bale again), the shaggy Western movie star Dylan (Richard Gere), and a sort of narrator Dylan (Wishaw).
The six sections really are done in different styles. The most extreme are the Bale section (done as a fawning, thirty-years-later documentary) and the Blanchett section (the stark, black and white, defensive genius Dylan we know and love from D.A. Pennebaker’s 1965 documentary Don’t Look Back). They’re interwoven in a sort of criss-crossing pattern, working their way chronologically through his career, but double-backing at points. The linkages are all done “impressionistically.” Some (particularly the Ledger sequence) adhere fairly well to conventional notions of feature film drama. Others (the Gere section, especially) are more abstract and rambling.
There’s plenty to admire in this movie. The shifting styles allow the director and cinematographer (Edward Lachman) to play around with film stocks, lighting, and transitions. The transitions themselves are often the best thing about the movie: Haynes gets to construct montages using some of the best music around (Dylan’s). Though the music is drawn from all across Dylan’s oeuvre, there’s a bit of a bias towards “Blonde on Blonde,” which is fine with me. Or maybe it just felt that way since so much of the material on that 1966 album is so strong.
The standout section belongs to Cate Blanchett, who proves herself yet again to be one of the finest actors working today. Rare is the beautiful actress who can (or is allowed to) completely transform herself for every role, but Blanchett has the chops to do it. She gets the privilege of playing Dylan at his most fascinating: chain-smoking, going electric, sparring and TKO-ing reporters trying to lead him into soundbites for their infotainment pieces, meeting the Beatles, and being shot in gorgeous, high contrast black and white. The Dylan of this part of his career was where he burned the brightest, firing out his most memorable music at an unbelievably frantic pace until a motorcycle crash forced him to back down and cool his heels for a while. Just watching Dylan free associate to clueless British reporters in Don’t Look Back is entertainment enough; Haynes and Blanchett use this Dylan to deliver soliloquies directed at the biopic audience, challenging their notions of who or what Bob Dylan the Icon is.
Co-writer/director Todd Haynes has charted these territories before. I’m Not There is not his first (Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story), not his second (Velvet Goldmine), but his third musical biopic. I’ve never seen Superstar—barely anybody has, as it will probably never get copywrite clearance to be released (it tells the story of singer Karen Carpenter’s death by anorexia using Barbie Dolls), but I have to admit I was kind of surprised Haynes decided to go back for another helping after Velvet Goldmine. Besides presumably Haynes himself, most interested parties consider that film an interesting failure. Like Dylan in I’m Not There, Velvet Goldmine was about a fictional David Bowie. Unfortunately, Haynes couldn’t get the rights to any Bowie songs, and he went ahead and made the film anyway. Why did Bowie refuse? Was he philosophically opposed to a biopic not controlled by him, or did he recognize that Haynes’ vision for the film was going to make for a bloated, overlong, eventually unpleasant affair?
The music itself is the big star of the film, and just hearing these songs playing over the high-priced speaker system of a theater near you will be worth the price of admission for many people. Original Dylan recordings are sprinkled with Dylan covers done by a veritable wrecking crew of indie talent. Stephen Malkmus, Sonic Youth, Jeff Tweedy, Cat Power, Yo La Tengo, Calexico, and their less famous brethren help the actors personify Dylan at different points in his career. Malkmus—the mastermind behind Pavement (no slouch in music history terms himself)—is probably the featured guy, appearing on three different tracks (most memorably on “The Ballad of a Thin Man”, lip-synched by Blanchett at a Mr. Jones journalist figure played by Bruce Greenwood).
I really do refer you to the second paragraph if you’re trying to decide whether you should see this or not. It’s not a conventional feature, and it is about Bob Dylan, from opening to closing credits. This may eventually be a footnote in Dylan’s career (alongside Eat the Document and Masked and Anonymous), but it’s about as creative and interesting footnote we’re likely to see.