I’m Not There, a daring and innovative film inspired by Bob Dylan and directed by Todd Haynes (Velvet Goldmine, Far From Heaven), takes various stages of Bob Dylan’s life and career and reinterprets them to the soundtrack of his music. Unlike Factory Girl, in which a character apparently based on Dylan forced his lawyers to threaten to sue the makers, this movie received his blessing. It’s easy to see why: Haynes shows a respect for his subject and the shape-shifting and multiple identities Dylan has undergone over the years, by re-enacting this tendency in film and employing a variety of actors to portray aspects of Dylan’s persona over time.
Each of the actors is given their own narrative loosely based on actual events and interviews from Dylan’s past: Marcus Carl Franklin plays a young black version of Dylan who calls himself ‘Woody’ and thus represents the beginning of the artist’s career, when he styled himself on folk singer Woody Guthrie; Ben Whishaw plays the ‘poet’ Dylan styled after Arthur Rimbaud; Heath Ledger plays Robbie Clark, a Hollywood actor estranged from his wife Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and children, representing Dylan the star refracted through his personal life; Christian Bale plays Dylan as a young, politicised folk singer and later becomes ‘Pastor John’ (Dylan the born again Christian); Cate Blanchett plays Jude Quinn, or Dylan at the height of his fame in the 60s, when his original fan base rejected him as a sell-out for going electric; and Richard Gere plays the older Dylan as a Billy the Kid figure in a surreal and haunting Wild West town. All stories are filmed in a style unique to each character and are informed by cinematic history: from cinéma vérité to Fellini, Goddard and westerns.
Narratives are spliced throughout, taking you from Woody to Billy in an unpredictable but oddly fitting manner. There are many beautiful set pieces which could easily be extended and beautifully directed music videos – notably those in the Billy the Kid story, which features some stunning moments set around the bandstand, where Billy stands up to his nemesis Pat Garrett in a rustic, circus style setting. Revisiting the movie upon its DVD release I was struck anew by what seems to be perfect casting – particularly that of Cate Blanchett, Heath Ledger and Charlotte Gainsbourg.
Much has been said about Blanchett’s performance, which really captures Dylan as he was in the 60s (see D.A Pennebaker’s documentary Don’t Look Back). Choosing a woman with Blanchett’s luminous beauty was a risky strategy but it pays off. Her performance illustrates just how alien Dylan appeared to people in the 60s: androgynous, full of riddles. Her every move, gesture and even the timbre of her voice is uncannily and inherently Dylan – culminating in a memorable confrontation between Jude and a journalist in the back of a car.
Heath Ledger’s performance is shot through with pathos given his recent death; already ensconced in the more emotive parts of the film, his scenes were even more moving given the circumstances and it was difficult not to feel choked seeing him so young and fresh on the screen. He and Charlotte Gainsbourg offer us a more personal, intimate story than the rest, portraying the start and finish of a relationship very movingly. Their naturalistic performances give the impression of a couple’s life together in what constitutes only a segment of the film’s wider whole, and they deserve praise for their success in realising this in so short a space of time.
The rest of the cast also acquit themselves well: as usual Christian Bale performs with intensity and integrity and Marcus Carl Franklin is impressive as a man-child searching for an identity. Even Richard Gere was less smug than usual. Ben Whishaw delivered some powerful monologues but the character of Arthur was less tangible than the others and only seemed there to provide some way of knitting together the disparate stories.
In all, this movie does well to emulate the slippery nature of Dylan’s own self-mythologizing and delivers a series of unforgettable stories strung together by his music.
And the DVD extras? They include a passionate and intelligent commentary from Todd Haynes that gives an account of how much research and dedication went into the movie. Given the restraints on location (the movie was shot entirely in Montreal which had to stand in for London, Greenwich Village and the wild west) and time, the sense of commitment from everyone involved is clear from Haynes’ words.
There’s also a set of informative interviews with Haynes and a lovely video tribute to Heath Ledger. A mini documentary on the making of the soundtrack is also worth a look. It features an interview with Sonic Youth’s Lee Ronaldo, who produced much of the album. Considering the film itself features a mesmerising reworking of “Going to Acapulco” from My Morning Jacket’s Jim James and Calexico, a discussion with the guy who had the fearsome task of reinterpreting a selection of Dylan’s songs for contemporary artists simply had to be on the cards. However, it was a shame that there weren’t more interviews with other artists involved in the soundtrack, such as Eddie Vedder or Richie Havens (who is also in the movie). It would have been nice to hear their thoughts on the project. On that note, I’d have liked to have seen some cast interviews as well.
I won’t split hairs. There’s a written contribution from Greil Marcus for goodness sake! And it’s the movie that’s the thing. I’m Not There stands up to and becomes even more enjoyable on repeat viewings, and supplemented with the background information currently available in the Extras, is something I would advise Dylan and movie fans alike to invest in. Although you come away with no greater knowledge of the legend himself, your appreciation of Dylan’s work is all the greater for stimulating creative and original endeavours such as this.
I’m Not There (Two-Disc Collector’s Edition) on amazon.com
I’m Not There  on amazon.co.uk
Bob Dylan Official Website
By: Lindsey Davis