By Matt Singer
[Photo: Cate Blanchett in “I’m Not There,” Weinstein Company, 2007]
A man stands on a stage and plays ferocious, grinding blues. At first glance, the man is Bob Dylan, defiantly pounding away on his electric guitar despite the protestations of an angry crowd at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall. On second glance, the man isn’t Bob Dylan at all; the man, in fact, isn’t even a man. It’s Cate Blanchett as “Jude Quinn” in an incredibly lifelike simulacrum of the Manchester show in Todd Haynes’ Dylan deconstruction “I’m Not There.” There’s a lot of that in the movie, scenes of eerie familiarity, still photos or album covers brought to life. If you’re the type of moviegoer (and Dylanaholic) who enjoys scouring a frame for in-jokes and references, this movie is your dream come true.
Blanchett’s Jude isn’t the only Dylan on hand, though there are five more, played by Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Richard Gere, Ben Whishaw and Marcus Carl Franklin, each representing a different period of Dylan’s career or side of his personality. Though we know these six characters are different faces of one die, these guys and yes, Cate’s, playing a guy look and act like totally different people. Some like Whishaw’s Arthur aren’t even musicians. One (Franklin’s Woody) isn’t even the same race as the rest; he’s sort of a straight-faced version of the old Steve Martin gag “I was born a poor black child.” The six Bobs rarely intermingle, and their stories don’t even approach something resembling individual narratives. Instead, “I’m Not There” is an accumulation of character sketches and performances by Dylans, both real and imagined, and an all-star roster of cover artists (including Stephen Malkmus, Antony & the Johnsons, Jim James from My Morning Jacket, and a particularly feisty Richie Havens).
The immediate reaction to all these different Dylans is that their attitudes and appearances are so disparate that they simply cannot be reconciled as facets of the same person. That, I think, is Haynes’ fundamental point. Haynes the artist is examining Dylan the artist, and marveling at his contradictions. Just when his audience thought they understood him as a protest song writing folk hero, Dylan rejected all of that for the image of a disinterested hard rocker (a clash of styles that led to the infamous Manchester show). At the press conference after his film’s screening at the New York Film Festival, Haynes explained that Dylan’s freedom to reinvent himself was always more important to him than the freedom to simply be himself. Whether or not Dylan himself actually believes this (the fact that he authorized this film and permitted Haynes to use his music suggests that at the very least he doesn’t reject the notion), the idea comes through loud and clear in the film.
Unfortunately, that’s about all the movie communicates. Despite Haynes’ obvious affection for his subject, as well as his ample cinematic gifts, “I’m Not There” is a bit impregnable. To be fair, Dylan himself is a bit impregnable; his whole mystique, especially in that “Jude Quinn” period, was built on keeping himself at a remove from his answer-craving audience. Representing that idea on screen cuts off the amount of insights into Dylan at the notion, repeated often, that there can be no insights into Dylan. However appropriate that is to the man himself, it’s unsatisfying to the viewer. I walked out of the film with a deeper appreciation of Dylan’s catalogue, but with little additional knowledge about his life or his ideas. And if Haynes is, as Quinn claims to be, “just a storyteller,” the stories he’s telling aren’t particularly dynamic, especially those starring Gere and Ledger, who do not even attempt to “play” Dylan (in the way that Blanchett and Bale, with their accents and looks, do) and whose storylines feel a bit pointless.
Even as it dances between visual styles and color palettes (the Blanchett portions are Felliniesque black and white, the Ledger chapters are filled with rich greens, the Gere segments sooty and brown), there remains something inexplicably cold about “I’m Not There.” I deeply respect its intentions, admire both its filmmaker and its subject, but have very little affection for the finished product.
That famous “Royal Albert Hall” concert in Manchester has one of the most remarkable moments in the history of 20th century music. In between songs during his electric set, one member of the audience calls Dylan Judas. While tuning his guitar for the next number, Dylan responds: “I don’t believe you. You’re a liar!” then turns to the band and orders “Play fucking loud!” before launching into a blistering rendition of “Like a Rolling Stone.” Curiously, in the Haynes version, Dylan does not get his revenge or the last laugh. It’s like a cover version without the original’s passion or fire, and it occurs to me that that despite all the different angles the film shows of Dylan, that one, maybe the most important, is the thing “I’m Not There” is missing.