I’m Not There
Directed by Todd Haynes
Written by Todd Haynes and Oren Moverman
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Christian Bale, and Marcus Carl Franklin
The average biopic takes the life of an extraordinary person and creates a larger than life characterization. Well, what do you do when the subject in question is already larger than life? What do you do when your subject is Bob Dylan, an inconsistent and self-contradictory man inseparable from the shadow of his own legend? Simple: you cast six people to play him, and you make up an impossibly fantastic world for your six Dylans to inhabit.
In “I’m Not There,” Todd Haynes’s film inspired by the life and songs of Bob Dylan, one sixth of Dylan is an 11-year-old world-weary African-American boy; the remaining fractions are comprised of a jaded movie star, an androgynous speed freak, a hyper self-conscious poet, a disillusioned folk singer turned reborn Christian, and last but not least, an aging fugitive living in a carnival world of the grotesque.
That these characterizations are so over the top is a testament to the legend surrounding Dylan. If he himself is larger than life, then the six characters portraying him are larger than Dylan. For better or for worse, they are exaggerations rather than personifications of Dylan’s many sides. By splitting Dylan into six, these portrayals reject the notion that he could have inhabited all of these characters at once, and in that way, they elude the inherent contradictions that make Dylan Dylan.
If that doesn’t make sense … well, this is a film that doesn’t make sense, just as Dylan’s own history doesn’t make sense. As do Dylan’s ever-changing philosophies, the film makes many points but struggles to find a central theme. It rambles and jumps from moment to moment; it gets lost in its own words. It surrenders the notion of capturing the essence of Dylan as a whole, and so it divides and conquers the many periods of Dylan by demonstrating his shifting musical styles and changing world views. The defining moments in Dylan’s life become characters, including his young self’s exodus from Minnesota and Robert Zimmerman (his birth name), his rejection of protest songs, and his transition to electric guitar.
The actors that play these snapshots of Dylan channel him so fiercely that they could be mistaken for Dylan himself. Marcus Carl Franklin and Christian Bale give standout performances, and Cate Blanchett’s androgynously drugged out Dylan steals the show. Blanchett perfectly recalls Dylan at his most sarcastic and combative, and she shines at the center of Dylan’s most hallucinatory and drug-centric years.
The film plays out like one big hallucination of the ’60s and ’70s. It’s quick, witty, and biting, taking shots at the Beatles, Joan Baez, Mod Culture, and the entire Greenwich Village folk scene of the early ’60s. No one is spared, not even Dylan himself, as his doppelgangers emphasize his worst ticks and excesses.
As one note of warning, the film is top heavy with anachronisms and inside jokes. This can either be a great source of laughs or an extra layer of confusion — at the showing I attended, most of the laughs came from the over 40 crowd. Scary, really. Many of the scenes in the movie are lifted right out of iconic memories and photographs of Dylan, and there are plenty of “blink and you’ll miss it” moments.
There’s also a heavy layer of commentary injected by the director. Many bits of dialogue have added meaning when you consider what’s become of Dylan and his music nowadays. For instance, amidst the lineup of alarmingly waspish folk fans who bemoan Dylan’s switch to noisy electric, Haynes plants a modern hipster into the lineup, giving the send up line, “I kinda like being blasted out of my skin.”
In spite of the film’s complexities, or rather because of them, “I’m Not There” largely succeeds (which is remarkable considering most films usually need things like a plot and a structure). But somehow this hallucinatory, exaggerated, and fractured take on Dylan finds a way to really hit home and connect the audience to the soul of Dylan’s legend. Perhaps there is no better way to capture the essence of a rambling, half-fictional icon of American culture than with a rambling, entirely fictional film.