As you may have noticed (if you religiously study my year-end lists even months after the given year has ended), I recently moved Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There up to #3 on my 2007 list. I did this after rewatching the film on DVD, and then rewatching it again with Haynes’ commentary track. When I first saw the film in the theater, I was convinced of its greatness — now, though, I’m convinced it’s one of the best films of the ’00s and further proof that 2007 was one of the finest years for cinema in a very long time.
What Haynes has done is create the ultimate musical biopic without falling into any of the cliched traps invariably found in those films. He’s also done it without once naming the subject of his movie. Instead, Haynes portrays the “many lives of Bob Dylan” by having six very different actors portray aspects of Dylan’s life and career:
• Marcus Carl Franklin portrays “Woody Guthrie,” a young guitar player traveling cross-country to meet the legend whose name he has borrowed and spinning wild tales about his own upbringing. Franklin, a 15-year-old black kid, symbolizes how the young Dylan invented a fantastic back story when he first hit the scene.
• Christian Bale plays “Jack Rollins,” a singer whose story directly parallels Dylan’s emergence on the folk scene, and how quickly Dylan was embraced as the voice of a generation. Julianne Moore plays a stand-in for Joan Baez. Later in the film, Bale portrays “Pastor John,” representing Dylan’s conversion to Christianity.
• Cate Blanchett, in the film’s most talked-about performance, embodies the rebel Dylan who shocked the folk world by going electric and spent a crazy year in England playing in front of hostile crowds. Her “Jude Quinn” is a dead ringer for the wiry, androgynous Dylan captured in the documentary Don’t Look Back.
• Heath Ledger’s “Robbie Clark” is an actor who becomes a star after portraying Jack Rollins in a movie. His marital struggles reflect relationships the real-life Dylan had with early girlfriend Suze Rotolo and his wife, Sara. Dylan’s classic album Blood on the Tracks is a portrait of his dissolving marriage, and this segment of the film captures the feel of that album beautifully.
• Ben Whishaw, as “Arthur Rimbaud,” serves as Dylan the Poet, and narrates the film using lines from Dylan’s own interviews and writings. His segment isn’t a story so much as the tissue that holds the rest of the stories together.
• Finally, Richard Gere plays “Billy the Kid” in the film’s least admired (and least understood) segment. He represents the Dylan who checked out and moved to the country following his motorcycle accident.
This approach likely wouldn’t work with any other artist. Dylan is a unique figure in American musical history precisely because he has been so many different people. He has been a folkie hero, a rock-n-roll asshole, an Americana bard, a Christian rocker and a recluse. He has amazed, delighted and frustrated fans and critics alike for five decades. What’s extraordinary is that Todd Haynes has tackled such a difficult moving target and somehow nailed him completely.
Apart from the roaring success of the film’s unorthodox structure, Haynes has put together a master class on film history. To set each segment apart stylistically, he adopts a different style popular in the 60s and 70s… from the Fellini-esque black-and-white absurdity of the Jude Quinn scenes to the long lenses and warm color tones of early 70s westerns he uses to shoot Billy the Kid. The Jack Rollins segment could have been stripped from newsreel footage of the Greenwich Village folk explosion, while Robbie Clark’s scenes feel as if they were shot by Robert Altman. Between the musical and cinematic allusions, the film is made up of entirely borrowed material, yet it shines through as one of the most original works I’ve ever seen.
Finally, I must mention the music itself. As a huge Dylan fan, I’ve listened to all of his albums countless times but I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed his songs as much as I do in the context of this film. Haynes has married some of the finest songs ever written to indelible images that support and deepen their impact — two old men (including Richie Havens) and young Marcus Carl Franklin tear into “Tombstone Blues” on a front porch, a poignant acoustic version of “Idiot Wind” fills in the silences of a dissolving marriage, a powerfully sad rendition of “Goin’ to Acapulco” is peformed at a young girl’s funeral. It’s like listening to a classic album and watching a classic film simultaneously.
And that is exactly what Todd Haynes has delivered with I’m Not There — a true classic.