I'm Not There.
Directed by: Todd Haynes.
I'm Not There is a biographical depiction of the life of Bob Dylan. Six different actors, including Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Marcus Carl Franklin [a black child], Richard Gere, Heath Ledger and Bob Whishaw, adopt a unique persona to represent the singer at different stages of his career. We see Dylan as a singer-songwriter, a poet, a failed husband and ultimately a man who through his music that held great influence throughout the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War.
This challenging and overly confusing film is marred greatly by its lack of a cohesive narrative structure. The representatives of Dylan do not appear in a direct sequence but rather they are interwoven together, leaving I'm Not There as more of a collage rather than a film. There is little chance to understand where Dylan's life began, how he developed as a person or how the times shaped him as a person. It has a messy and completely self-indulgent feel to it with the film moving from black and white, to colour, fantasy and reality. It is as though Haynes is determined to make his film as bizarre and unconventional as possible.
The talking point of the film has been the use of six different actors to represent a persona of Dylan at various stages of his life. Yet this is really the film's most fatal flaw. It is too obvious to criticise the film as being ludicrous for casting a woman or a small black child as Dylan. The complaint is more that it leaves us entirely disconnected from the man that we are trying to get know, defying the exact point of the biographical genre and the film.
Cate Blanchett has received the most hype and praise for her performance. As she transformed herself into Katherine Hepburn in The Aviator she again performs exceptionally well, transforming her voice and capturing the mannerisms of Dylan. Yet despite how very good she may be and the effort that has been placed into making her resemble Dylan (the hair is spot on at least), this does little to confront the lack of illusion in her casting. We know that it is Cate Blanchett – a woman - and that will remain too detracting for an audience who will be viewing the supposed persona, "the innovator", as Blanchett the actress rather than Dylan.
If the film could only contain one persona Heath Ledger would have been a sound option. Not only does he completely resemble a man but he also has real sense of anger and aggression with him (on and off the camera) that that is much like the rough edge and sound of Dylan's music. Ledger has one of the more interesting stories too of Dylan the successful actor verses himself as the unsuccessful husband and father. Though this is not a love story that has the involvement or depth of Walk The Line, a superior film, that defined its characters through what they had truly experienced in life and the values of the time.
The biggest misstep in the casting and plotting of the film remains Richard Gere as Billy the outlaw. He is meant to represent Dylan's exile from the public eye. This leaves the film with a really strange subplot about a town that is going to be demolished and a lost dog story too. I'm sure I wasn't the only person wondering what hell was going on here. It never captures the metaphoric stance of Dylan as an outlaw at all, not only because it's set in a shantytown, but also again because we know it's a Hollywood star that is meant to "represent" Dylan. How much more interesting it would have been to examine, even in a conventional and formulaic way, the rise and fall of stardom, the way a musician craves fame, then detests the attention. Had this segment been removed from the film it would have taken at least fifteen minutes off a film that is 135 minutes in running time already. The remaining impersonators do not get as meatier parts in the film. Christian Bale is barely in the movie, and although there is a mildly interesting scene where he becomes a born again Christian, how this reflected on the life of old Bob is not explored at all.
Surprisingly the casting of Marcus Carl Franklin is perhaps the most successful, not so much in the acting chops, but rather in its symbolism. He is a fellow who metaphorically says to us that this was Dylan's effort to embrace a new culture through the art of singing and song writing. Yet again why Dylan was like this and why he adopted this music the way he did is never examined. There is also Arthur (Ben Wishaw) "the enigma", who is meant to be the "official narrator" but his part is so small and meaningless that it's not really worth mentioning. I didn't actually realise he was meant to be the narrator till after. You may not even notice him either. I assume he got paid for the role, so he won't mind too much. No love loss.
Ultimately this is a frustrating and tiresome film. I feel that it is in some ways it is quite irreverent to Dylan's life. Is it really appropriate to take a person's life and a number of their experiences, mash it together and put the man on a pedestal and say: "He is everyone, he is no one" to justify it? If someone took my life and cast a woman as me I would be slightly annoyed to say the least. (Not even Blanchett? –Ed) Some will say that this is an artwork that represents everything Dylan stood for. Yet I wasn't looking for a representation. I was looking for an explanation as to what made Bob Dylan the way he is. I'm Not There was not the answer.