I’m Not There

Musical biopic/mockumentary/weird undefinable something

  • Written by Todd Haynes and Oren Moverman
  • Directed by Todd Haynes

Artists should experiment, try new things, push the boundaries of their art. There can be no masterpieces without experimentation. But since experimentation involves trying something that may or may not work, failure is a real possibility. (I’m talking about artistic failure here, although one shouldn’t discount the importance of commercial failure, either.)

I regret to report that Todd Haynes’ courageous experiment, I’m Not There, is a failure. His original idea–six actors playing different aspects of Bob Dylan’s personality or public persona–gives us little insight and no comprehensive view of either the artist or the art. A conventional biopic, with one actor taking us through Dylan’s changes and masks, would have been more enlightening and more entertaining.

Full disclosure: I am a huge Dylan fan. Although too young to have fully appreciated him at his artistic and influential height in the mid-1960’s, I fell in love with his work in college, and never fell out of it. I’ve read several biographies and own a large collection of his work. So I went into this movie knowing a good deal about the subject.

There’s no character called “Bob Dylan” in I’m Not There. Each of the six stars plays someone with a unique name. And each appears in a story that’s for the most part unrelated to the other five. And in the case of Richard Gere’s Billy the Kid, pretty much unrelated to Bob Dylan, too. I’m not really sure what that story was about.

The Heath Ledger sections kind of work, but have little to do with Dylan. Ledger plays a movie star who makes life miserable for his wife (Charlotte Gainsbourg). I guess Haynes meant this to examine Dylan’s first marriage, but nothing I’ve read about that marriage look like anything on the screen. But they were interesting characters and deserved more screen time.

The film’s best moments belong to Cate Blanchett as another side of Bob Dylan, this one called Jude Quinn. The Quinn sequences catch Dylan at his most electric–literally and figuratively–as he alienates his fans by moving from folk to rock. As she did in The Aviator, Blanchett manages both a flawless imitation and a real character study as Quinn drowns in ego, drugs, fame, and his own considerable wit.

Here and elsewhere, Haynes has fun with the medium. The Quinn scenes are in black and white, mostly with a ’60’s, cinema verite look. One sequence opens like a scene from 8½, morphs briefly to A Hard Day’s Night, then returns to Fellini territory.

These playful touches and Blanchett’s performance are all that make I’m Not There worth checking out.

There’s also the music, of course. The soundtrack is one great Dylan song after another, mostly in the original recordings. On the other hand, if you love Dylan, you probably already own these.