Talking Movies

December 23, 2019

From the Archives: I’m Not There

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

Crazy/Brilliant, that’s not an ‘either/or’ approach to this film where you’ll consider I’m Not There to be either crazy or brilliant. No, it’s ‘both/and’, this is one of the best films of 2007; yes, it features one of the craziest concepts ever to cobble together enough financing to get made but its execution is superb in every respect. To even attempt an explanation of the structure of the film would be madness as writer/director Todd Haynes does not follow chronologically the career of Bob Dylan but cross-cuts between different aspects of it. At no point is Dylan’s name mentioned, this is not a biopic, it is inspired by his music ‘and many lives’. It could have been an unholy mess but the intercutting of different actors and settings makes perfect sense in its own deranged fashion.

The story begins with Ben Whishaw as the poet Dylan answering police questions about himself and doing the whole Greenwich Village routine. A guitar-picking black kid calling himself Woody Guthrie is Dylan’s earliest hero-worshipping incarnation, he becomes Christian Bale’s uncanny impersonation of the protest singer Dylan while Heath Ledger’s mumbling actor Jack Rollins is the embodiment of the mid to late 1960s Dylan, drunk on his own fame, married but endlessly womanising and refusing to engage with the world in his songs because it can’t be changed. Richard Gere is the outlaw Dylan trying to escape into a mythical Old West while Bale returns as the late 1970s Dylan embracing evangelical Christianity. Cate Blanchett steals the acting honours by doing a tremendous version of the Dylan that toured England in 1966 and was given the hostile reception recorded in DA Pennebaker’s documentary Don’t Look Back.

Todd Haynes redeems the disastrous hash he made of depicting glam rock in Velvet Goldmine by using this demented set-up as a means to make Dylan’s songs incredibly fresh. Woody Guthrie’s early dirty blues rendition of ‘Tombstone Blues’ sets the scene for terrific use of many songs, probably the best of which is ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’, which is made to seem a sarcastic attack on Bruce Greenwood’s sneering BBC journalist Mr Jones. The song is subsequently dissected by the Black Panthers for hidden meanings. That could be a metaphor for this film. Haynes has produced such a rich ensemble of performances (even minor turns like David Cross as Allen Ginsberg and Julianne Moore as Joan Baez), beautifully re-created film styles, and tremendous evocation of golden-green rural America (as well as capturing the disoriented vibe of Dylan in Britain in 1966 – the moment when the Beatles appear in a Help! pastiche is priceless) that this is a film which will repay subsequent re-watching and that should be seen by all Dylan fans, or people with any interest in pop culture, or…hell just anyone who’s awake!

5/5

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