For all the talk of the deep weirdness of I’m Not There – a splintered anti-biopic that divides Bob Dylan’s ’60s and ’70s heyday between six Bob-like characters – it still has a story to tell. Unfortunately, it’s a story that requires Cliffs Notes; I say this with certainty because the Arclight was handing mini-guides out before the screening. As a folkie whose taste skews more towards Neil Young and Joni Mitchell (not to mention Peter, Paul & Mary) than his Bobness, I wasn’t sure how impenetrable I’d find it. But despite being laden with references that I’m sure went over my head like so much idiot wind, there are more than enough landmarks of the Dylan myth – the motorcycle accident, the divorce that inspired 1975’s Blood on the Tracks, going electric (“Judas!”) – for even casual fans to revel in. [Continue reading…]
The heart of the film comes from the performances of two women: first, Cate Blanchett’s tour de force take on Jude Quinn (…the eskimo), which is in turn a take on 1965-era Dylan-on-speed’s rampage through England. Nailing Dylan’s one-of-a-kind vocal cadence and his jittery antagonism, she presents Quinn as a self-martyring icon trapped in a world partially of his own making. The best sequence – which you can watch above – finds Quinn in a rare moment of enthusiasm at meeting Allen Ginsberg. Finally, a peer rather than a prosecutor! Meanwhile, Charlotte Gainsbourg’s long-suffering wife unveils Heath Ledger-as-Dylan’s (well sort of – he plays an actor playing Christian Bale playing yet another Dylan) growing pessimism in the face of the interminable Vietnam War. The various threads, filmed in appropriately different styles, tie together in these sometimes clever, peripheral ways, but anyone with a passing knowledge of the Dylan myth shouldn’t have much trouble sewing them up.
If anything, the film’s weakness is forgetting one of its hero’s greatest strengths: storytelling unhindered by indulgence or needless experimentation. Intent on being as anti-Establishment as the man himself, I’m Not There is too long at 2 hours and 15 minutes, some 20 of which – including the interesting but tangential Richard Gere arc – could stand to go. But Gere – as Billy the Kid, an outlaw who finds he can never escape the law (and symbolically, Dylan’s unwanted role as the voice of a generation) – serves a purpose; the grimy interludes of stock news footage and the twice-repeated pointless rapid-fire shots of the six Dylans in succession (during which you can practically hear director Todd Haynes yelling at the audience, “Get it? Get it?”) are less essential.
Still, I’m Not There succeeds in painting a remarkably fresh portrait of one of pop music’s most confounding icons. A great movie exists within the bloated runtime, though perhaps the length is to be expected: As much as Haynes would hate to admit it, this is very much a Bob Dylan biopic – just like “Like a Rolling Stone” is very much a folk song. A-changin’ indeed.
Bob Dylan – “I Want You”: mp3
Deeper into Movies is a Yo La Tengo song and, in this case, a film review column. Click below for more.