I'M NOT THERE: I met up with Cecilia, Alacia, Rupert and Sam last night at the Midtown Art Cinema to see the Dylan bio-pic, I'm Not There. The film has received rapturous reviews and I was eager to see Cate Blanchett in drag and how writer/director Todd Haynes (Safe, Velvet Goldmine and Far From Heaven) would deconstruct the many lives of Bob Dylan. It's simply one of the most unexpected and amazing films I've seen in years. Haynes gives a big middle finger to the linear storytelling of mainstream bio-pics (think Ray and Walk the Line) and gets deep inside the persona and public psyche of Dylan. The film lays Dylan bare and yet never unravels the true enigma of the man. If anything, I'm Not There only adds to the myth.
The movie hangs on a quote from Dylan: "All I can do is be me. Whoever that is." The conceit of having different actors portraying the same person is nothing new. Bunuel did it and more recently Todd Solandz did it in Palindromes, having a dozen actors playing the same character to various degrees of success. Haynes greatest achievement is having the Dylans be so completely different, yet the same. Since Bob Dylan's name isn't really Bob Dylan (it's Robert Allen Zimmerman), Haynes decided to give each of his incarnations different names as well. The movie begins with a young African-American boy who calls himself Woody (a nod to folky mentor Woody Guthrie), riding with hobos in boxcars and bringing his songs to the masses in the 1950s. While he looks 11, the people around him perceive him as older and, in one instance, white. Marcus Carl Franklin's portrayal is just behind Blanchett's as the most moving and effective. When he's taken in by a black family, the matriarch sneers at his old-fashioned songs. "Sing about your time," she says, referring to race riots, war and poverty.
This admonition introduces us to the next Dylan, played by Christian Bale. With his direct and poignant protest songs, he's a fast-rising star named Jack Rollins on the folk scene in Greenwich Village. Julianne Moore is excellent as a thinly-veiled Joan Baez, who was his lover and frequent musical partner. Bale's Dylan becomes so famous, that they make a movie about him starring Heath Ledger as the Dylan character. The actor, Robbie Clark, becomes so immersed in the music and character, that he also becomes an aspect of Dylan. His failed marriage to artist Sarah and the turbulent child custody battle is affecting and expertly played, especially by Charlotte Gainsbourg as Sarah.
Then you have Blanchett playing the "electric" Dylan. Before he plugs in, there's a quick scene of him and the band onstage with machine guns mowing down the audience, a nice allusion to the betrayal many felt when Dylan plugged in his guitar. Blanchett's Dylan, named Jude Quinn, is put-upon by the press and a pill-popping, mumbling acolyte of Beat poet Allen Ginsberg (a superb David Cross). If you've seen the documentary Don't Look Back, this is the Dylan Blanchett is channeling. She so completely inhabits the character that it's eery and when the film jumps to one of the other Dylans, you keep waiting for her return. It's one of the most inspired casting choices ever and Blanchett deserves a Golden Globe and an Oscar for best supporting actress. No one has come close to matching her brilliance this year.
I haven't mentioned the Dylan as Arthur Rimbaud (Ben Whishaw), who sort of links all the scenes together, spouting poetry and bon mots, and then there's the most baffling Dylan -- the one played by Richard Gere. Set in some bizarre Western town -- with wild animals running loose, carnival players and roadside hucksters -- Gere is apparently supposed to be Billy the Kid, who survived his shooting by Sheriff Pat Garrett and went into hiding. He comes face to face with Garrett, who has become a road-builder threatening to pave over the town. It helps to know that Dylan starred in and provided the soundtrack for Sam Peckinpah's film Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid for context, but this is also the "outlaw" Dylan who gave up fame and fortune and went underground.
Having a general knowledge of Dylan's life is helpful going in, but unless you're a devotee (like Haynes) it might not make any difference. There are so many nods, winks and references that you'll never get them all. What many will go for is the music. Dylan gave Haynes unprecedented use of the great songs, and some of the actors lip-synch to the classics, but Haynes goes a step further by having other singers do covers then having the Dylans lip-synch to the covers. There are some good re-creations of pivotal musical moments, such as the horrified crowd reaction when Dylan "goes electric" and in London when the audience shouted him down as being a "Judas" for betraying his folk roots. All the familiar tunes are here: "All Along the Watchtower," "The Times They Are a Changin'," "Stuck Inside of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again," "Highway 61 Revisited," "Just Like A Woman," "Maggie's Farm" and many more.
At 135 minutes, it's a little long, but so riveting you can't take your eyes off it. The hallucinatory quality of Haynes' sumptuous black and white and color film is both engrossing and off-putting. Often you won't know what the hell is going on, but you'll be anticipating the next moment and singing along. It's one of the best films of the year and, if there's any justice, will get a ton of Oscar nods. Be sure to stay through the end credits to hear Antony and the Johnsons haunting cover of "Knocking on Heaven's Door."