Todd Haynes’ experimental, eclectic new film I’M NOT THERE is a strange, bold film that strenuously avoids the routine conventions of the Hollywood musical biopic. Bob Dylan’s diverse career and life is the subject at hand, and Haynes, who previously directed the colorful satire of 1950’s melodramas FAR FROM HEAVEN, takes his audience on a trippy, surreal, occasionally frustrating ride through the many moments of Dylan’s impressionistic life. Abandoning the traditional three act structure and casting six different actors to play versions of Dylan, Haynes’ film is unique and fresh in ways that seem almost impossible for the genre. You won’t leave the theater knowing anything more about Dylan than you may already know, but for fans of his music, I’M NOT THERE is essential viewing.
Starting with the film’s title and continuing on with its defiance of a conventional narrative, I’M NOT THERE is about how Dylan was/is, essentially, a vapor of an individual. Representing different things to different people, Haynes’ nervy decision to cast multiple actors as the singer is an audacious move. It allows the audience to indulge in a multitude of feelings and sensations about the legendary singer, and his actors are pretty much all up to the task. And what a roster of talent he’s assembled: Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Richard Gere, Heath Ledger, Ben Whishaw, and youngster Marcus Carl Franklin all take on their roles with gusto and passion. Some of the performances are better than others (Blanchett leads the pack followed closely by Ledger; Gere is miscast) but they all carry a distinct, hallucinatory quality that bridges the film’s desire to marry the expected with the unexpected. I’M NOT THERE is, at heart, an art film. It’s personal and uncompromising in its vision and design, and it’s unlike any other musical biopic I’ve ever seen. Oh yeah—the music is killer too.
Haynes, who also wrote the film, cuts back and forth between the various actors, forming a kaleidoscope effect of emotions, styles, and moods. Blanchett (brilliant) is the drugged out Dylan, unable to respond adequately to the press and critics, stumbling around in a stony daze. Ledger is a famous actor playing a role in a film that is Dylan-esque; he’s married (to the lovely French actress Charlotte Gainsbourg) and has a kid and shows zero desire to be a part of the family dynamic. Bale is Dylan as innovator and creator; one of the best scenes in the film is the infamous Virginia Beach concert where Dylan went electric for the first time, much to the chagrin of his loyal fans. Whishaw, so good in last year’s under seen masterpiece PERFUME: THE STORY OF A MURDERER, is a bit wasted as the talking-head Dylan, spouting off lines of psychological assessment that work as links between the segments. Franklin, who has an awesome presence despite his young age and relative lack of acting experience, is Dylan represented as naive child and; the moments with Franklin singing with some train hobos is lyrical and sweet. But Gere, who roughly approximates Dylan when the singer took on a role in Sam Peckinpah’s classic Western PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID, is truly lost. He’s not helped by Haynes’ decision to insert a bit of Fellini-esque magical realism (the 8 ½ references are explicit), and his segment sort of shambles from one dazed moment to another. It’s a bold artistic decision of Haynes to add this layer to his already surreal tale, but it’s here where the film feels a bit unfocused.
I’M NOT THERE has been crafted with love, passion, and reverence by Haynes, and it’s a film for anyone who considers themselves a true Dylan fan. The beautiful texture and diverse multi-format cinematography by the estimable Ed Lachman (FAR FROM HEAVEN, THE LIMEY) is a pleasure for anyone who considers themselves a cinematography buff. And as I mentioned earlier, the music is dynamic; it sends you out of the theater on a high. I’M NOT THERE is a private, challenging film that will certainly frustrate viewers who go into the film looking for easy answers and clear-cut ideas. Haynes, who has established himself as a singularly idiosyncratic filmmaker (aside from the brilliantly conceived FAR FROM HEAVEN his work includes the stunning glam-rock expose VELVET GOLDMINE and the creepy domestic “thriller” SAFE), is an artist working overtime in artist mode. Never pretentious or labored, this long-ish film works up a full, heady stream of images, sound, and ideas, and culminates with an exceptional final shot that wraps the film up beautifully. This is an interesting film that I look forward to re-watching down the line.