When one really takes a hard look at all of the films released in 2007, you really start to form the idea in your head that more great movies came from that year than possibly any other since the beginning of the 2000’s. Yet another superb piece of cinema from that year was Todd Haynes’ experimental, eclectic film I’m Not There, a willfully strange and bold work that strenuously avoided the routine conventions of the Hollywood musical biopic. Bob Dylan’s diverse career and life was the subject at hand, and Haynes, who had previously directed the colorful and piercing satire of 1950’s melodramas Far From Heaven, took 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. 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 and different points in time, Haynes’ nervy decision to cast multiple actors as the singer was an audacious move, a stunt that repeatedly paid off. It allowed the audience to indulge in a multitude of feelings and sensations about the legendary singer, and the actors he chose were more than up to the task.
And what a roster of talent he assembled: Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Richard Gere, Heath Ledger, Ben Whishaw, and youngster Marcus Carl Franklin all took on their roles with gusto and passion. All of them did splendid, varied work, with Blanchett leading the pack, followed closely by Ledger and Bale, and though I initially felt that Gere was miscast, multiple viewings have slightly quelled that first impression. They all brought a distinct style to their interpretation, and when melded all together, the result became mildly trippy to experience, as the various performances all help to bridge the film’s desire to marry the expected with the unexpected. I’m Not There was an artistic expression first and foremost, with entertainment running second in the goals department. It’s personal and uncompromising in its vision and design, and it’s unlike any other musical biopic I’ve ever seen. And if you’re a fan of Dylan (which I assume anyone who will take the time to watch this film will be), the music is predictably smashing, with a wide range of the master’s songs on display.
Haynes, who co-wrote the film with the supremely talented writer/director Oren Moverman, cut 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 anger of his loyal fans. Whishaw, who was phenomenal in the criminally underrated Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, was a bit underused as the talking-head Dylan, spouting off lines of psychological assessment that work as links between the segments. Franklin, who has a natural screen presence despite his young age and relative lack of acting experience, is Dylan represented as naive child, and the tender moments with Franklin singing with some train hobos is lyrical and sweet. And Gere, who roughly approximates Dylan when the singer took a role in Sam Peckinpah’s classic Western Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid, plays Dylan as a lost soul, drifting around a Fellini-esque circus-setting that contains all manner of magical realism with direct homages to 8 1/2.
I’m Not There was crafted with love, passion, and reverence for Dylan by Haynes and Moverman, 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. I’m Not There is a private, challenging film that will certainly frustrate viewers who go into it 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, the creepy domestic “thriller” Safe, and last year’s achingly romantic Carol), is an artist working overtime in artist mode, never interested in playing it safe or capitulating to the studio suits. This is an epic yet intimate film that works up a full, heady stream of images, sound, and ideas, and culminates with an exceptional final shot that beautifully wraps the film up.