"I'm Not There"
by Bill Gallagher
Bob Dylan’s never been one for lyrical analysis. It wasn’t about what his songs meant,
man. It was all about how they felt.
“I’m Not There,” the Todd Haynes movie based loosely — very loosely — on the life
and times and music and rhymes of Bob Dylan feels really good. It feels surreal. It feels
like a sweet dream and a bad drug trip and a bad dream and a sweet drug trip. It made me
dizzy at times. It’s a mind-bender. Leave your expectations in the lobby because this is
unlike any bio pic ever made.
“Ray” and “Walk the Line,” dealing respectively with Ray Charles and Johnny Cash, are
fine movies, but compared to “I’m Not There” they’re extended magazine articles, while
the way Haynes handles Dylan is poetry. Free verse, if you will. If you’re looking for
facts and dates and character development and a coherent narrative, it’s a documentary
you want. This is not that. If you can handle something other than just the truth about a
great American artist and the finest song writer we’ll ever hear, then this is your movie.
Word is Dylan had nothing to do with the making of “I’m Not There” and didn’t demand
script approval or seek revisions. I’d like to believe that’s the case. And until I hear
differently I’m thinking he would like this movie. Very much.
Let’s deal first with some issues of structure. There are six characters that may or may
not represent Dylan at various stages of his career. I think.
There’s Woody Guthrie (Marcus Carl Franklin) — the namesake is a precocious,
immensely talented young black kid. He’s apparently an orphan. Or maybe just a
runaway. He’s riding the rails and singing his songs for hoboes. When a couple of them
attack him and try to steal his guitar, he jumps out of the boxcar as it’s crossing a bridge
and lands in a river where he’s swallowed by a whale. He survives through the kindness
of strangers — a black family welcomes him and feeds him. The wise matriarch tells
him, “Live your own time child. Sing about your own time.”
So Woody Guthrie becomes Bob Dylan. I think. One of the great musical moments in the
movie comes as Woody jams on “Tombstone Blues” on the front porch with Richie
Then there’s a white family that takes him in. They’re kind but just a bit patronizing and
shocked when the authorities blow Woody’s cover.
Arthur Rimbaud (Ben Whishaw) is an edgy, agitated poet being interrogated by some
kind of official panel of anonymous bureaucrats. The questioning prompts asymmetric
answers, the kind Dylan loved to give to questions from the press.
Jack Rollins (Christian Bale) is Bob Dylan singing the protest songs and protesting the
efforts to put him in a box. That would be the box the Old Left figured he belonged in as
the folk singer for a new generation who would “carry it on” as the old Civil Rights
anthem used to say. Sorry folks. From real life we get the episode when Dylan managed
to piss off some New York City leftist swells in formal dress who gave him an award. He
mocks them. How dare he. They boo him. So long left-wing politics.
Rollins comes back later as born-again Bob. His conversion to Christianity is treated with
more respect than you would expect.
Billy the Kid (Richard Gere) comes along to totally confound the idea that we’re seeing
Dylan’s progress as a series of character sketches. His story weaves in and out of the
other character’s stories as if it’s a dream. Gere gives us a man searching for something
only to find that everything keeps changing. He ends up in the town of Riddle, Mo., just
as the city fathers are trying to kick the townspeople out to make way for a six-lane
highway. They protest. A band plays. The band sounds like The Band. People parade
around town in costumes. Is it Halloween? A circus? Giraffes and ostriches appear. The
people are strange. Here Haynes cinematically matches the imagery that made so many of
Dylan’s songs so effecting and so elusive. You don’t have to understand what the scenes
or the songs mean. It’s enough that they make you feel. Something. Anything. It’s up to
Robbie Clark (Heath Ledger) is Bob Dylan re-imagined as a movie star in the ’60s.
Critics call him a combination of Marlon Brando and Jack Kerouac. Which is kind of a
weird dichotomy if you think about it. Here we get the dark side of Dylan’s domestic life,
his painful divorce from Sara Dylan, who is re-imagined as a French painter and mother
of his two daughters. Why would Haynes choose to use the persona of a movie star who’s
not a very good actor to focus on Dylan’s greatest disappointment? To show how
celebrity destroys relationships. I think.
Finally there’s Jude Quinn (Cate Blanchett) as Bob Dylan making the messy but essential
break with the folk world by going electric at Newport. Then he hits the road for an epic
debauch in Britain. This is scary stuff. A bad dream during his waking hours. Predators
surround him. Only a comic romp with the Beatles seen from a distance provides relief.
Drugs nearly do him in. And Blanchett channels his weariness eerily. Casting her as
Dylan is Haynes’ boldest stroke of genius. This woman has now played the roles of
Elizabeth I, Katherine Hepburn and Bob Dylan. Impressive.
Impressionistic might be the best way to describe what Haynes has done with the facts,
half-facts, fables, and impact of Dylan’s life and art. The result is that we’re thoroughly
entertained with the idea of Dylan rather than the reality. Dylan once lit into a Time
magazine reporter because the magazine dealt only with facts and never with ideas.
Dylan himself never had that problem. No one has ever done what he did with music and
lyrics in the way that he did it. And I doubt anyone ever will. “I’m Not There” is a movie
worthy of its subject. In other words, by not playing it safe it soars and is most rewarding
because it ignores the rules.
How Haynes manages to capture Dylan’s spirit on the screen is a mystery that shouldn’t
be solved, just celebrated.
Bill Gallagher is the news director of AM 860 KPAM - The Talk Station and reviews
movies monthly in BrainstormNW.
BrainstormNW - December 2007