Friday, May 9, 2008

I'm Not There

Director: Todd Haynes
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Richard Gere, Ben Wishaw, Marcus Carl Franklin, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Julianne Moore

Running Time: 135 min.
Rating: R

**** (out of ****)

I would have given anything to be a fly on the wall during the conversation between writer/director Todd Haynes and Bob Dylan’s agent when they agreed upon a direction for a movie based on the singer’s life. I’m guessing it probably went something like this:

Agent: So I ran the idea past Bob and he’s cool with it. Except, he’s got a couple of ground rules.

Haynes: Sure. Shoot.

Agent: Well, first off you can’t write a movie that’s literally ABOUT Dylan.

Haynes: I’m not exactly following.

Agent: It just has to be INSPIRED by his life. And it has to be weird. I mean really weird and completely inaccessible…like he is.

Haynes: I can do that. Didn’t you see my Karen Carpenter movie with the Barbie dolls?

Agent: I did. Great stuff. Oh, and you can’t use his name any of his really famous songs either. So no “Tangled Up in Blue” or “Shelter From The Storm.”

Haynes: What about "All Along The Watchtower?"

Agent: That one’s okay. Most people think it’s Hendrix’s anyway. Just between you and me, his version is way better.

Yeah, that doesn’t seem too far off. I should mention that I go into Haynes’ anti-biopic I’m Not There as a pretty big Bob Dylan fan. I have a lot of songs on my ipod but I skip over loads of them, usually picking out what I want to listen to depending on the mood I’m in. But I don’t have to be “in the mood” to listen to Dylan. He's one of the few artists whose music I never tire of listening to. To appreciate this film requires complete honesty regarding why it’s being made in such a bizarre style. Why instead of traveling the normal biopic route we’re instead treated to a bunch of different actors playing incarnations of arguably America’s greatest singer/songwriter at various stages of his life.

It isn’t an attempt to gain greater perspective and insight on someone who has always been a frustrating, unsolvable puzzle as a human being and a celebrity. It’s being done because Dylan is such an introverted, insecure emotional basket case that he wouldn’t be able to stand anyone putting his life on screen for the world to see. Taking this unconventional approach softens the blow for him and was likely the only way the film would have ever seen the light of day. He could only truly express himself through his music and that notion lies at the heart of the film. Probably to Dylan’s chagrin, Haynes takes full advantage of his subject and in telling us nothing plays a sneaky trick and manages to tell us nearly everything. The opening credits tell us the “film is inspired by the music and many lives of Bob Dylan” and that’s actually true. It’s the rare biographical film that does justice to its subject and now we can claim to actually have a film that’s just as affecting as the work he has given us. Others may find it a frustrating mess but even those who do won’t be able to deny its ambition or strokes of pure genius.

The film jumps between characters and timelines with no definitive three-act structure and the scenes don’t flow with each other as they would in a conventional narrative. Normally an approach like that would create a distance between the viewer and film but strangely that isn’t the case here. Against all odds it manages to be emotionally involving and while you care about some stories and incarnations of Dylan more than others, all of them hold your interest intensely. Dylan is first imagined as an 11-year-old Depression-era obsessed African American boy named Woody Guthrie (Marcus Carl Franklin) who rides the rails with his guitar. He’s meant to represent the early inspiration for Dylan’s career. As played by Franklin, he's wise WAY beyond his years. Jack Rollins (Christian Bale) is a popular folk singer who later converts to Christianity. He’s being portrayed in a film by movie star Robbie Clark (Heath Ledger) whose tumultuous home life with wife Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is obviously meant to echo Dylan’s own rocky marriage with his first wife Sara Lownds.

Ledger and Gainsbourg share real, palpable chemistry (both negative and positive) and with limited screen time make their story arc the most engaging in the film. It’s tough to imagine how tortuous it must have been to be married to Bob Dylan, but the mesmerizing Gainsbourg finds a way to capture it. The acoustic-goes-electric jerk Dylan depicted in D.A. Pennabaker’s 1967 documentary Don’t Look Back is imagined by Cate Blanchett as a character named Jude Quinn, while Ben Wishaw interprets the babbling poet version, Arthur Rimbaud. Both those segments are filmed in black and white with the former shot in a beautiful style reminiscent of Fellini’s 8 1/2. Richard Gere has the smallest amount of screen time as Billy The Kid, a world-weary recluse whose time appears to have long passed.

There are some bizarre but fascinating supporting turns, especially from Julianne Moore as folk singer/activist Alice Fabian, an obvious stand-in for Joan Baez, who was jilted years ago by Bale’s character. She appears in the Dewey Cox-like documentary style portion of the film and it’s scary how well she gets Baez down in manner and appearance…really scary. Michelle Williams has a small, hallucinatory type role as a girlfriend of Quinn’s while Arrested Development’s David Cross gives a funny and startlingly accurate performance as Beat poet Allan Ginsberg.

Of all the takes on Dylan the one that surprisingly interested me the least was Blanchett’s Oscar-nominated one. I think this is because we’re so familiar with that version of Dylan it’s almost impossible to be surprised or shocked by it. This section of the film explores his notoriously adversarial relationship with the press and in trying to present them as clueless, ignorant vultures (which they were) we’re also reminded again what an asshole he was. However, Blanchett does Dylan more favors than he did himself in Don’t Look Back with a slightly more sympathetic portrayal that never relies on just merely imitation. She’s also given the most memorable Dylan moment: being booed at the Newport Folk Festival for abandoning his folk roots by “going electric.” Blanchett is bold and daring, but the essence of him (or how we imagine him to be) is captured even more by Bale and Ledger. It’s awful and painfully obvious to point out, but watching the Ledger portions of the film it’s impossible not to wonder just how much the late actor’s life may have resembled that of the character he was playing. It casts a ghastly, uncomfortable pallor over the picture, yet also gives those scenes an added poignancy.

I’m probably one of the few who really enjoyed Richard Gere’s performance because it was so subdued and restrained compared to the rest, and the part calls for it to be. His character and story have been singled out as the weak link in the movie but I found it to be a compelling analogy of Dylan’s insecurity with fame and his legacy late in his career. This section also contains my favorite scene, a haunting theatrical stage show set to the unearthed Dylan gem, “Going to Acapulco” covered by My Morning Jacket. Surprisingly, despite this film’s title coming from one of Dylan’s more obscure basement tape tracks, he did actually grant the rights for his more well known songs to be used in the film. The original versions of “Stuck In a Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again,” “I Want You” and “Visions of Johanna” make appearances and they add a lot. We do get “All Along The Watchtower” but an Eddie Vedder cover as opposed to the Dylan or Hendrix version. Haynes does an excellent job giving a second life to more obscure tunes while interweaving them seamlessly with the classics.

The name “Bob Dylan” isn’t mentioned once, although pay attention late for the only literal acknowledgment of him. Knowledge of his life and work isn’t a prerequisite to enjoying this picture, but those who have it will likely find even more to appreciate. Anyone going in knowing little to nothing will likely leave wanting to learn as much about him and his music as possible. Dylan haters would probably find it entertaining too since the film doesn’t glaze over his serious personality flaws and is as appropriately frustrating and impossible to crack as he is. As for the die hard fans, they finally have a representation of Dylan on film they can really put their arms around and embrace.

It’s now almost impossible to watch another biographical film without being reminded of this one, which exposes all others as frauds. It points out how boring and uninteresting the standard biopic approach has always been. You’ll likely have fun imagining other icons being given a treatment like this and which actors could possibly play them. I’m Not There has been lumped together with another risk-taking musical film last year, Across The Universe, which used The Beatles as its inspiration. I recently re-watched that and discovered it didn’t hold up nearly as well on the second viewing. I watched this twice and loved it even more the second time and I think that’s because while most films have only one method of entry, this has seven, with a new way to get in each time. Any way you approach it, you end up knowing no more about Bob Dylan the person than you did before, and that’s okay. He remains exactly as he should be: An enigma. And in telling us nothing about him, Haynes somehow reveals so much more than we could have hoped.

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