I’m Not There (2007)
Directed by: Todd Haynes.
Written by: Todd Haynes & Oren Moverman.
Starring: Cate Blanchett (Jude), Ben Whishaw (Arthur), Christian Bale (Jack / Pastor John), Richard Gere (Billy), Marcus Carl Franklin (Woody), Heath Ledger (Robbie), Julianne Moore (Alice Fabian), Charlotte Gainsbourg (Claire), Bruce Greenwood (Keenan Jones / Garrett), Michelle Williams (Coco Rivington), David Cross (Allen Ginsberg).
Biopics of musicians have long been a staple of Hollywood – they give actors a chance to show off both their chops at impersonating someone else famous, and their musical abilities – and often lead to Oscar nominations and wins. They all pretty follow the same basic formula – a few scenes of the musician as a child, to let the audience know what inspired them, then scenes of them struggling, and finally scenes of them succeeding. Or else, the follow someone like Johnny Cash or Ray Charles as they get famous, get strung out on drugs, and then beat their addictions, etc. You know the story – and Jake Kasdan’s Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox story brilliantly skewers the genre. Because these films remain so popular, it was only a matter of time before someone decided to make one about Bob Dylan – one of the most iconic American musicians of the 20th Century. But how could you tackle someone like Dylan, who has deliberately kept himself an enigma for his entire career by constantly re-inventing his public self, while not providing all that much insight into his private self? Who the hell is Bob Dylan?
Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There finds the perfect – perhaps only – way to make a biopic about Bob Dylan, and that’s to turn the genre inside out, and make a film that both provides insight into Dylan, yet keeps him an enigma. The film stars 6 different actors playing 6 (or 7, depending on how you view the two Bales) different Dylan personas, each of which gives you a little insight into a part of Dylan – but not the whole. The name Bob Dylan is never once mentioned. And still, Haynes doesn’t get everything – yes, one of the Dylan’s is a child, but he is a black child in love with Woody Guthrie, not a Jewish boy from Minnesota. And he really doesn’t address anything after, say 1980 or so. The film is a technical marvel – inspired by different films in each segment, and it all adds up to a dizzying, hugely ambitious film that remains as tough to crack as Dylan himself. Which is exactly how it should be. It’s not a perfect film – because how the hell could it be – but it is still a masterpiece.
The six (or seven) different Dylan’s are played by different actors, representing different eras, or aspects, of Dylan’s persona. The best, and most famous, of them is Jude (Cate Blanchatt), who plays Dylan around the time he’s gone electric, and gone on tour in England – famously captured in Don’t Look Back by D.A. Pennebaker. But Haynes doesn’t take that film for its visual inspiration for this segment – instead, he goes with Fellini’s 8 ½ and creates a surreal, hallucinatory portrait of an artist who has no idea where he’s going next – who can be both a genius, and an insufferable asshole. Blanchatt is an odd choice for Jude – and not just because she’s a woman (as Haynes as pointed out, Dylan at this point was very thin, and did move with a slightly feminine style) – but because we’re not used to seeing her in something this strange. But Blanchatt nails it – and what may have played like a mere stunt, instead becomes the heart of the film – and the best performance of Blanchatt’s career.
The other Dylan are interesting in their own ways as well. There is Woody (Marcus Carl Franklin), a young African American boy in the edge of adolescence, who rides the rails, singing Woody Guthrie songs – much to the confusion of everyone he meets, who want to know why he’s talking about things that happened 30 years ago. At this point, Dylan is merely aping what came before him, and needs to find his own style. There is Arthur (Ben Whishaw) – inspired by the French poet Arthur Rimbaud, who is being interviewed by some off camera person about his career as he talks in poetic circles about his life and career – despite being so young. There is Jack (Christian Bale), the young, idealistic folk singer who became the voice of the “protest” movement for a few years, embracing it feverently, before completely rejecting it a short while later. Bale returns later as Pastor John, the older version of Jack, who has now embraced Christianity in the same way (this is why there’s a debate about whether it’s six or seven personas – is Pastor John separate from Jack, or is the same, embracing something whole heartedly for a while, before abandoning it). There is Robbie (Heath Ledger), an actor who plays Jack in a more traditional biopic than this one – but his segment, heavily inspired by Jean Luc Godard of the 1960s (but more feminist) – focuses on his first marriage to Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and how it briefly flourished before it crumbled. This is a remarkable segment, because Ledger and Gainsbourg have to do so much in such a short period of time, showing this relationship – and Gainsbourg in particular is brilliant (in fact, other than Blanchatt, I think hers is the best performance in the movie).The most head scratching segment stars Richard Gere as Billy the Kid – who instead of being dead, has been hiding out for decades, away from the public eye - going about his life in solitude, before he is forced out again.
In some ways, these are all separate personas, who exist in their own reality within the film. But there are deliberate echoes in each of the segments that resonant in other ways, and tenuous connections, where you can see how one persona bleeds into another one. If it makes any sense – and it may not – they are all separate, but all the same. By the final shot of the movie – which is the only one of the actual Dylan, playing his harmonica (and not speaking or singing), you feel both closer to Dylan, as well as still mystified by him. Haynes hasn’t made a film for casual Dylan fans – I wonder if anyone who doesn’t know how Dylan is when the watch the film will be able to make heads or tails of it – but he’s made one that is loyal to the subject. It is perhaps the most free-wheeling of Haynes’ great film – it has the looseness of Velvet Goldmine, but this time that’s not because the movie hasn’t been thoroughly thought through, nor is it scattershot or surface level only. Haynes applies the same rigorous visual standards to the film – as well as his passion for old movies, which are referenced throughout – but he allows the film to flow a little more freely than something like Safe, Far From Heaven or Carol, which are far more controlled. You can probably point out more flaws in I’m Not There if you so choose – but for me, it moved me more than his others. Haynes has made more perfect films than this – but I don’t think he’s made a better one.