Pros: Cate Blanchett as Jude
I'm Not There stars the late Heath Ledger, Cate Blanchett, Richard Gere and Christian Bale.
Tell him we've lost his poems, so they're scribbling randomly on the walls
I had hoped I'm Not There might cut to the chase (not literally, of course, as there are no chase scenes in the film to cut to, which is a pity, because a couple of scenes from Bullit might have helped make this turgid and stilted affray a tad more exciting) and offer some rare insight into the man Robert Zimmerman, by scraping back the years of accumulated media accretions for a peek under the promotional personae, the public perceptions, the publicity and pomp, the self-conscious mystique that surrounds the musician.
But it doesn't.
Contrary to what the publicity might have you believe, this is not a "daring and inventive" new approach to cinema, nor does it present "Dylan portrayed like never before..."
Dylan is presented, as usual, as a multifaceted enigma, completely in keeping with his publicity profile. It is yet another Hollywoodesque exercise in myth-making, yet another boring prop to support the multi-billion dollar dinosaur that is the American entertainment industry. American 60s music icon rehashed as postmodern poet.
I'm Not There is about as experimental as vivisection and just as enjoyable to watch.
This is the first movie that Zimmerman has allowed to be made about his life, and it fits neatly with his self-serving mythologies. Iconoclastic musician as innovator, experimenter, defier of conventions. Yawn. Todd Haynes's film uses six actors to portray six hyperstylised and fabricated aspects of how this ageing stoned musician might imagine his life. But as far as i am aware, Dylan was never actually an 11-year-old black boy named Woody Guthrie. Nor was he, in fact, Billy the Kid.
This "imaginative biopic" might work better if it showed a little imagination. This concept may have looked good on paper, but at some point it became wooden.
There is one stellar piece of acting - Cate Blanchett's portrayal of a 1966AD Dylan. Unfortunately Cate's supernova performance serves only to dwarf the dense, static portrayals that are collapsing all around her, under the sheer weight of their own gravitas.
Ben Wishaw's character Arthur, a young poet in 19th century attire who chain-smokes and quotes Arthur Rimbaud, goes nowhere, with his dialogue consisting of quotes from Dylan's 1965 interviews: ad-hoc, off-the-cuff relativist ramblings. Marcus Carl Franklin plays a young Dylan as an 11 year old black boy, who, the movie promo informs us, is "also trying to pass for something he is not. Like Dylan..." Well, they got that bit right, didn't they, Mr Zimmerman?
You could do a random edit of this flick and it would make absolutely no difference to its narrative flow. If you didn't know Christian Bale was playing Dylan, in a couple of christian incarnations (Jack and Pastor John), you'd be hard-pressed to guess it. And his gospel singing is just God-awful.
I feel sorry for Richard Gere as Billy, in an unrewarding, daft role which is perhaps meant to work as a sub-plot, as townsfolk struggle to save their town - which looks like a surreal clapboard set from a misbegotten Western - from a highway or a railway or some damn thing which i don't care about because by the time the film has reached this backwater it has utterly lost me.
Heath Ledger is forgettable as Robbie, the focus of the film's love story, set against the backdrop of the Vietnam war. His wife Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) slips in and out of her put-on French accent, and the audience can't discern whether this is another element of the movie's postmodern cinematic "experimentation" or just lazy acting and direction.
I didn't get into the spot-the-allusion-to-Dylan's-body-of-work game, so much of the film's alleged "interest" evaporated for me right there. If you have Dylanmania you may fare somewhat better devouring this dog's breakfast.
The soundtrack includes music from one of my favourite acts, Yo La Tengo, as well as Cat Power, former Pavement singer Stephen Malkmus, Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder, Wilco's Jeff Tweedy and X's John Doe. In spite of this array of interesting talent, the soundtrack never grabs me the way Dylan's original songs always have, electrifying and insightful. But perhaps using Dylan recordings for a Dylan biopic would be too conventional?
The approach lies at the heart of what ails I'm Not There: being unconventional for the sake of being unconventional. Rather than for the sake of poetry or art.
Now hear this Robert Zimmerman
Though I don't suppose we'll meet
Ask your good friend Dylan
If he'd gaze a while
down the old street
Tell him we've lost his poems
So they're writing on the walls
- David Bowie