Embracing the world with positive creativity since Sept 2007.
(Rock icon Bob Dylan hanging out with poet icon Allen Ginsberg in "I'm Not There")
The title of I’M NOT THERE comes from a Bob Dylan song of the same name. In the song, the iconic singer/songwriter/actor/activist seems to lament the ups and downs of his relationship with a woman described as “my prize-forsaken angel,” and “a long-hearted mystic.” Where Todd Haynes’ and co-screenwriter Oren Moverman’s ultra-brilliant movie is concerned, that same title might be applied to two things. The first is the succession of public images––from committed folk artist and “radical” activist to evangelical disciple and reclusive outlaw––that Dylan has famously projected throughout his long phenomenal career, allowing the public access to these personas while battling to safeguard the integrity of his true core identity. The title’s second reference may be to the fact that our hero himself is nowhere to be seen in the film (except in fleeting parting glimpses) but six other gifted performers acting as him, or as parts of him at different points in his life, are.
Generally described as a “biopic,” I’m Not There actually trashes and reinvents that film category, whether done so intentionally or not. The various actors who portray Dylan’s creative and spiritual qualities for this movie do more than simply mimic the performer. They embody with consummate skill all the elements that combined to make him the amazing human being that he is: the mesmerizing myths of American folk music, the turbulent political and social events of the 1960s, and the sometimes uneasy tension of the relationship between celebrated performers and their audience.
The tricky part of this movie for some viewers is the fact that the six actors portraying Bob Dylan are all called by different character names as opposed to being called just Dylan or Bob. Australian actress Cate Blanchett, for example, earned an Oscar nomination for her performance as the mercurial Jude Quinn. Hypersensitive, androgynous and almost alien-like in appearance, Quinn represents Dylan just as he was skyrocketing to world fame in the mid 1960s. He delivers some of the best lines in the film, such as when he freaks out after learning he’s been booked to perform eighty plus shows to make him a millionaire, and then yells, “Who the f**k said I wanted to be a millionaire?!”
In addition to its other amazing attributes, I’m Not There will remain memorable for Heath Ledger’s performance as Robbie Clark, the proposed romantic side of Dylan, and for the fact that this was one of Ledger’s last films. It’s also a treat to watch veteran actor Richard Gere as the matured but reclusive Outlaw Billy the Kid who gets drawn out of his self-imposed exile when developers threaten to build a road through the valley where he’s hiding out. And Ben Whishaw (the gifted star of Perfume) provides a crucial anchor as the poet-philosopher Arthur Rimbaud who calmly endures interrogations about the motives and inspiration behind his art. While all these actors give outstanding performances in their own right, Christian Bale struck this reviewer as exceptionally convincing in his double turn as the young Jack Rollins and later as the converted Christian called Pastor John.
Yet possibly the most astounding performance of all came from the then 13-year-old Marcus Carl Franklin, a black youth named Woody (as in folk singer Guthrie) who in the film behaved and spoke like some seasoned bluesman four times older than he was. Unlike his co-stars, Franklin actually sang the songs attributed to his character and one of the best scenes in the film is of him and the legendary Richie Havens, a true-life contemporary of Dylan’s, going at it as they jam “Tombstone Blues” on the porch.
Enough classic tunes, performed by a variety of artists, play throughout I’m Not There to satisfy the most hardcore Dylan fans and to provide newcomers with a thorough introduction to his music. The soundtrack not only underscores the onscreen action, but filled as it is with all of the singer’s emotional intensities, social observations and philosophical inquiries, places the viewer in the very creative heart of it. In fact, it is through the songs, which Rimbaud/Dylan describes as “something that walks by itself,” that the man himself is most present in the movie.
Director Haynes remains true to the psychedelic film style of the 60s complete with swirling background screens and cameo appearances by powerhouse figures like beat poet Allen Ginsberg, the Beatles, and the political activist group the Black Panthers. At the same time, he delivers a flawlessly entertaining New Millennium epic unlike anything ever seen before and probably unlike anything we’ll see again for quite some time.
co-author of ELEMENTAL The Power of Illuminated Love