From everything I've seen and read recently about Todd Haynes, the director and co-writer of the new Bob Dylan bio-pic, “I’m Not There,” he’s an extremely intelligent, honest, creative, sensitive, and ambitious filmmaker with only the noblest intentions. Imagine coming up with the concept of casting six different actors to star as Bob Dylan’s many sided personality. It’s positively Dylan-esque. But there’s only one problem with “I’m Not There” – it doesn’t work.
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No it doesn’t work - and what a shame. “I’m Not There” had so much going for it. Bob Dylan has steadfastly refused to authorize the rights for a big screen biography. Todd Haynes was able to convince him with his ingenious concept for the film. Once Dylan signed on, Haynes gathered an amazingly eclectic group of talented actors to play the roles:
Marcus Carl Franklin as Woody (Guthrie)
Ben Whishaw as Arthur (Rimbaud)
Christian Bale as Jack and John (protest singer and pastor)
Heath Ledger as Jack (the actor)
Richard Gere as Billy the Kid
Cate Blanchett as Jude
“I’m Not There” breaks fast out of the gate with lots of sound and exciting images. Marcus Carl Franklin is wonderful in the first part of the film as an eleven year old hobo riding the rails of late 1930’s America in search of his personal musical vision. But it’s not long before the movie begins to veer wildly out of control. With no real plot to hang a story on, “I’m Not There” turns into a collage of seemingly unrelated story lines, flashbacks, flash-forwards, and good old fashion confusion. I believe even the most sophisticated Dylanologist will be perturbed.
It’s the performance of the lovely Cate Blanchett that lends the film it’s only true piece of real credibility. Blanchett is literally transformed into an almost uncanny identical twin of the Bob Dylan from the mid-sixties (thin as a string bean with shocked crazed hair). Shot in black and white, the Cate Blanchett scenes range from remarkable subtleness to over the top zaniness. In fact, the only time one truly senses Dylan’s presence in the movie is when Blanchett is on the screen.
Unfortunately, some of the scenes in “I’m Not There” are almost embarrassing - for instance - a clumsy reenactment of Dylan’s appearance on the Steve Allen show could have easily been deleted. The scene in which Dylan accepts the Tom Paine Award from the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee is breathtakingly bad. And an inordinate amount of time is spent on Dylan’s conversion to Christianity, which, in my opinion, is a particularly insignificant period in his career (a bewildered looking Christian Bale portrays Dylan in all these scenes).
At 2 hours and 15 minutes in length, "I'm Not There" eventually grows tedious. The tedium was almost palatable in the small audience I was a member of at the beautiful Arc Light Theater near Sunset and Vine in Hollywood.
I suggest taking another look at the classic D.A. Pennebaker documentary “Don’t Look Back,” or Martin Scorsese’s monumental “No Direction Home.” I have a greater appreciation for both these films having seen “I’m Not There.”
I applaud Mr. Haynes for his effort, but, regrettably, “I’m Not There” truly lives up to its title.