A folk music legend who went electric. A poet and prophet of protest. The son of Russian Jewish immigrants and a born again Christian. A filmmaker, actor and dreamer who eludes his fans and the press with his wit, Bob Dylan is represented in seven different personifications by seven different actors in writer/director Todd Haynes's ("Far From Heaven") "I'm Not There."
Haynes's much praised film lifts a concept Todd Solondz used 2 years ago for (the superior in my opinion) "Palindromes," right down to having a black actor and actor of the opposite sex represent their opposites. But where "Palindromes" was a fictional tale, "I'm Not There" is Haynes's third foray into an artistic representation of a real musical personage (his underground "Superstar" portrayed the life of Karen Carpenter with Barbie Dolls, whereas "Velvet Goldmine" offered a thinly fictionalized David Bowie story) and his idea of breaking Dylan down into the different personas he has played has mixed, albeit mostly intriguing results.
After a brief introduction from the 'poet' character, Arthur Rimbaud (Ben Whishaw, "Stoned," "Perfume: The Story of a Murderer"), in black and white, Haynes shifts to color to begin Dylan's tale with a young black musical protege (Marcus Carl Franklin, "Lackawanna Blues," just nominated for an Indie Spirit award for this performance) who rides the rails and calls himself Woody Guthrie. This is the pre-fame Dylan, influenced by the depression era folk music Dylan began with and used for the basis of his 60's protest songs (noting young Woody is out of date in the 1950's, he is advised to 'Sing about your own times, son' by the black matriarch who has fed and sheltered him during his journey).
Woody gives way to Jack Rollins (Christian Bale, "Batman Begins," "Rescue Dawn"), the 'Troubadour of Conscience who mumbles on talk shows back in black and white and will reappear later to represent Dylan's Born Again Christian phase. Rollins is early Dylan, famous enough to be portrayed in a color film by Robbie Clark (Heath Ledger, "Brokeback Mountain") in the role that makes him famous. It is Clark's character who woos and weds Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg, "The Science of Sleep," "Golden Door," in a terrific supporting turn which will be overshadowed by the knockout punch of Blanchett's performance), a composite representation of the important women in Dylan's life, particularly his wife. Robbie is also the character who will feel the pain of family life disintegrating due to his career and his ego. The affair with Edie Sedgewick fictionalized in last year's "Factory Girl," is alluded to here with salacious society girl Coco Rivington (Michelle Williams, "Brokeback Mountain") flirting with the electric Bob Dylan, portrayed in black and white by an electrifying Cate Blanchett. This is the Dylan who drew boos with his plugged-in 'Maggie's Farm,' who cavorted with the likes of Allen Ginsberg (David Cross, TV's "Arrested Development") and Normal Mailer and who famously turned the Beatles onto pot. (The Beatles are portrayed like a bunch of animated chipmunks at play with Dylan on an English estate's lawn - it's a cute touch, but reeks of undermining the Fab Four, equating them to Dylan as the Monkees were to them.) The final Dylan, the reclusive American legend, is represented by Billy the Kid, nicely underplayed by Richard Gere ("The Hoax") in the section of the film most apt to lose one. Perhaps being a connoisseur of all things Dylan (I am not) might help unravel this section, where Kid ducks Pat Garrett (Bruce Greenwood, who also previously represents the media at its worst) in a town that loves Halloween, where a giraffe is likely to appear in the town square.
Haynes does a laudable job of cutting back and forth among his Dylans so that while there is a linear flow, there is also the mix of the man. Rimbaud, for example, is a mere talking head, not an actual character in the action, who provides poetic Dylanisms throughout the film. Blanchett's Dylan actually dies in a motorcycle crash a la "Lawrence of Arabia" to suggest the man's moving on. Still, while the film dazzles through the electric years, it begins to feel bloated in its second half when the less biographical, more meditative Billy the Kid section unfurls.
Clearly Blanchett is the powerhouse player here, her whippet thin physicality matching Dylan's, her twitchiness suggesting speed. Bale also gets the core of the man, but Ledger is a bit too hale, Dylan made macho. Besides the luminous Gainsbourg (who also sings on "Just Like a Woman"), there is Julianne Moore ("Far From Heaven") doing a kickass Joan Baez impersonation as the fake Alice Fabian and Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon playing fictional folkie Carla Hendricks. Williams is unrecognizable as the pseudo-Sedgewick, so far does she get under her character's skin. Greenwood is terrific as the English journalist who pushes Blanchett's buttons ('You just want me to say what you want me to say.')
The film looks great both in its color and black and white passages thanks to Haynes's "Far From Heaven" cinematographer Edward Lachman and of course, the music, Dylan covers from Eddie Veder, Sonic Youth, "Once's" Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, Yo La Tengo and Ramblin' Jack Elliot, is superb.
Robin did not see this film.
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