A densely idiosyncratic, cubist-like cinematic portrait of a man who often calls to mind Bob Dylan, Todd Haynes’ “I’m Not There” resembles a film a precocious grad student in musicology might make about a creative hero. Stylistically audacious in the way it employs six different actors and assorted visual styles to depict various aspects of the troubadour’s life and career, the film nevertheless lacks a narrative and a center, much like the “ghost” at its core. Dylan fans and ’60s-era pop-culture mavens will constitute pic’s most reliable audience, as mainstream interest will remain unstirred.
Haynes’ unconventional approach to biography was no doubt the reason this became the first project about Dylan’s life anointed by the man himself, who allowed the use of his songs, both in original form and in covers. Dylan’s own taste in cinematic ventures has been questionable over the years, but “I’m Not There” is decisively superior to “Masked & Anonymous.”
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As it jumps around in time and explores assorted Dylan personae backed by one of the 20th century’s most impressive greatest-hits collections, “I’m Not There” is never dull and rarely aggravating. Some of Haynes’ most daring ideas — such as having the youthful, Woody Guthrie-idolizing Dylan portrayed by an 11-year-old black boy, and expressing the impact of the Dylan-goes-electric Newport concert by having the singer and his band literally machine-gun the folky audience — come off surprisingly well, and the general let’s-try-this approach is broached in such a genial manner that it encourages the viewer to abandon any preconceptions and follow where Haynes leads.
Such open-mindedness is further spurred by the first “Dylan,” who receives significant screentime. Young Marcus Carl Franklin is charmingly forthright as a guitar-toting kid who, in 1959, rides the rails, ’30s-style, and identifies himself as Guthrie when he doesn’t claim to be Arthur Rimbaud. Little “Woody” is admired for his talent wherever he travels, until he is upbraided one day by a wise lady who admonishes him to “Live in your own time.”
And so he does, materializing in Greenwich Village in the guise of “Jack” (Christian Bale) and taking the progressive music scene by storm with “The Times They Are A-Changin’ ” and other early gems.
At this stage, pic begins to fracture itself, for good and ill. Heath Ledger turns up as “Robbie,” a moody actor who stars as a Dylan-like figure in a Hollywood film called “Grain of Sand.” A docu format reminiscent of Martin Scorsese’s “No Direction Home” takes over to accommodate straight-to-camera interviews with the likes of former intimate Alice Fabian (Julianne Moore), and the verite vein persists in an attempt to explain why Jack cut his ties with the protest movement shortly after JFK’s assassination, around the time Robbie meets painter Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg).
Getting it on with Claire to the strains of “I Want You,” Robbie, in a charming scene, takes her to the country to pick up a motorcycle, and they eventually marry and have two kids.
The film suddenly jolts to life at the 40-minute mark with the cataclysmic New England Jazz & Folk Festival; not only is the music now plugged in, but the central figure, “Jude,” is impersonated by Cate Blanchett. Scrawny, her eyes often concealed by large shades and topped by a curly mop identical to Dylan’s at the time of “Don’t Look Back,” Blanchett is, appropriately enough, truly electrifying at first; she’s uncannily got down the skittish movements, wary eyes, curt mumble and occasional flashes of brilliance, and comes far closer than anyone else to approximating the Dylan the public knows.
As the performance goes on — it’s by a fair distance the dominant turn in the picture, both in impact and duration — and the character becomes increasingly wigged out by drugs and paranoia, the reliance on mannerisms over psychological depth becomes more apparent. Still, Blanchett’s casting and performance rep a daring coup, and she can now rightly claim to be the only thesp on Earth ever to have been asked to channel both Bob Dylan and Katharine Hepburn, and to have done so successfully.
Jude’s British tour and associated events provide the core and highlight of “I’m Not There,” due to a combination of Blanchett; the encounters with notables such as Allen Ginsberg and the Beatles (in a throwaway, “A Hard Day’s Night”-style gag); the visual elan Haynes and lenser Edward Lachman achieve in black-and-white by subtly segueing in style from D.A. Pennebaker and Richard Lester to the sleeker, swinging-London look of John Schlesinger’s “Darling”; Jude’s seemingly futile pursuit of an elusive Edie Sedgwick-type blonde named Coco (Michelle Williams); his defiance in the face of audience fury at his new sound; and the probings of an intelligent journalist (an excellent Bruce Greenwood), intent upon exposing Jude as a fraud.
Unfortunately, after steadily gaining steam and conviction through its midsection, the film grinds to a virtual halt when it again radically shifts focus to gaze upon “Billy” (Richard Gere), a reclusive mountain man intent upon leaving behind a celebrated and/or notorious past. This interlude clearly reflects not only on Dylan but on Sam Peckinpah’s “Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid,” in which Dylan played a supporting part.
Meant to echo both Peckinpah and “McCabe & Mrs. Miller,” this unduly protracted section is poorly conceived on every level, as it dramatizes and contributes nothing. Impossible as it no doubt would have been to eliminate a star like Gere from the picture, the end result unquestionably would have been superior without this meandering Western material, for which Haynes seems to have no feel.
Having hit this crossroads and proceeded down the wrong path, pic more or less stumbles the rest of the way, as do the various Dylan incarnations. Only a final, haunting closeup image of the real Dylan in performance brings things fleetingly back to life.
Dylan freaks and scholars will have the most fun with “I’m Not There,” and there will inevitably be innumerable dissertations on the ways Haynes has both reflected and distorted reality, mined and manipulated the biographical record and otherwise had a field day with the essentials, as well as the esoterica, of Dylan’s life. All of this will serve to inflate the film’s significance by ignoring its lack of more general accessibility. In the end, it’s a specialists’ event.
Production looks and sounds great. Montreal-area locations superbly stand in for such diverse settings as the northeastern U.S., London and environs, and Paris, a tribute as well to production designer Judy Becker. Costume designs by John Dunn, along with makeup, hair and assorted accoutrements, provide further crucial period verisimilitude, and the use of Dylan’s music is intelligent and invigorating.
“I’m Not There” may not be all there, but it doubtless provides lots to talk about.