Todd Haynes could not have chosen a more apt title for his Bob Dylan tribute film, I’m Not There. Dylan is not often found within the two hours and 25 minutes of the film: not in the character’s names, not in the soundtrack (the songs are covers), and only occasionally in the plot. As an ode to the legendary culture icon, Haynes achieves what he set out to do, but for those who expect insight into his convoluted character, it’s not there, either.
Using six actors, Haynes tries to define different time periods, personalities and styles of the mythic singer-songwriter. No one acted poorly, but several of the story lines could have been left out and achieved much of the same result. Though Billy the Kid (Richard Gere) plays the most obvious part in representing lore and bizarreness in general, he sheds little light on either, and the oddity is played up in its contrast to the rest of the film, as it feels entirely out of place – it could be said to represent Dylan’s seclusion after his motorcycle accident, but that’s a reach. Its most notable quality belonged to the images and sounds of Jim James and Calexico, in costume and face paint, playing “Goin’ To Acapulco” at the funeral of a young girl.
The Robbie Clark (Heath Ledger) segments were enjoyable, but very little about the story was unique to these particular characters and their particular situation; it felt like the same story of the same celebrity marriage gone wrong for the same reasons. Arthur Rimbaud (Ben Wishaw) felt superfluous, as well. His screen time was spent merely fielding questions in a similar style to Dylan, and he did a noble job, but was completely upstaged in that regard by Cate Blanchett.
Marcus Carl Franklin turned in an impressive performance as a young “Woody Guthrie,” a young transient boy besotted with the activist folk singer, charming everyone he meets along his journey with his big talk and his blues ability. The most weighted part came when an older woman told him to “sing about [his] own time.”
Jack Rollins (Christian Bale), a New York City protest folkie turned Christian pastor was covered with a documentary approach. It was a smart way to keep it from fading into the film, but parts of it felt too much like a mockumentary, as if it would turn into Spinal Tap at any moment. It also would have been nice to have more reflection on his born again spirituality.
You’ve already heard it, but it bears repeating: Cate Blanchett’s Jude Quinn, an androgynous singer-songwriter in the midst of an aesthetic turn around, hopped up on drugs, pissing off friends, band-mates, journalists and hobnobbing with stars, was the best part of the film. Had it not been for Michelle Williams’ Coco Rivington (a nod to Edie Sedgwick) using female pronouns to refer to Quinn, for an unknown reason, it would have been easy to forget that he was being played by a woman. Her mannerisms, her speech, her walk, her attitude – every minute detail felt authentic, as if watching long lost footage. Her portion held the best acting, the best cameo (David Cross as Allen Ginsberg), the most intriguing subjects, and the most memorable barbs and scenes – introducing Brian Jones as a part of “that covers band,” rolling in the grass with the Beatles, fighting over artistic intent with an aggressive journalist, heckling a crucifix with Allen Ginsberg and shouting “play your early stuff!”
Though it’s a deliberate fallacy that makes the movie (a woman cast as Dylan), the other intentional falsehoods, such as Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), meant to represent Dylan’s first wife, was a French painter, her husband, Leger’s character, was a Hollywood movie star, the entire Billy the Kid plot, etc., were its weakest characteristic. Dylan is such an inherently interesting person in his own right, his own lies, his own realities (both perceived and concrete), his own creations as they were, that to alter them made the film less poignant. Making a documentary or a standard biopic was clearly not Haynes goal, but had he applied his scattered, multi-character method to an even more accurate rendering, it might have felt more powerful.
Still, any Dylan connoisseur will enjoy I’m Not There, as it is much like the man it reveres: complex, confusing, ridiculous yet serious, but not without substance and significance.