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I'M NOT THERE

Review by Mark Wiechman

Stars:  Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Marcus Carl Franklin, Richard Gere, Heath ledger, Ben Whishaw
Director: Todd Haynes
Audio:  Dolby 5.1, Spanish and English Subtitles
Video:  Anamorphic widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  Weinstein Company
Features:  See Review
Length: 135 minutes plus extras, two disc
Release Date:  May 6, 2008

“I accept chaos.  I’m not sure whether it accepts me.”

Film ***1/2

It is difficult to overstate the influence of Robert Zimmerman, better known to the world as Bob Dylan.  Here is someone who took basic folk and blues and merged it with social consciousness and stark images of the world and life.  You hear his simple melodies and chord changes and yet there is always something magical about it that is just beyond your grasp.  And you don’t know what it is, do you Mr. Jones?

What other artist can say that they influenced The Beatles after they had already become world famous?  How many other artists found fame doing Dylan tunes in their own style, such as the Byrds and Jimi Hendrix?   Like John the Baptist, he was a voice crying in the desert, but when they tried to take his head, he just ran away. 

Much of this film is about Dylan trying to hide, returning to the southern roots music that had become part of him, maybe most of him, and at the end of the film we see him escaping from a prison and jumping on a train, free at last of!  the persona the world thrust upon him.

I distinctly remember hearing Peter, Paul and Mary perform Blowin’ in the Wind when I was very young, and asking what the song meant, and it was explained to me that the song asks questions that have no clear answers, so they are in the wind.  This was an awfully heavy subject for a child, but in time it made sense.  When I later studied literature the ideas that made Dylan click made even more sense.  While his musical ideas are interesting, clearly his lyrics gave them most of their value.  The music was just a transporting device. 

Which brings us to this strange movie. Well let’s see…this is not actually a biopic of Bob Dylan, but rather several different men and women of various ethnicities and ages pretend to be someone who is Dylan, but not given that name in the movie, and hardly any of his songs, albums, or movies are address by their original names, and people often talk in Dylan song titles.  And it goes on for more than two hours.

The whole problem with making a Dylan biopic is that he has changed so many times over the years, and no one really, totally understands or gets him in the way that a filmmaker might understand Ray Charles or Johnny Cash. 

The changing scenes from farms and carnivals remind me of the amazing but short-lived HBO series Carnivale except that they are based in the rural South instead of the dusty west And like that show, I often found myself irritated but entertained, because I did not really know what was going on.

It’s exciting to see Richie Havens play and sing on a porch with the young black child named Woody Guthrie, who sang his own part by the way.  It was also interesting to show long lines of fans who were self-righteously angry with Dylan when he went electric, implying that he should always stay the same.  We meet Cate Blanchett as “Quinn,” amazingly like Dylan even with a softer voice and features.  Toward the end she smiles as only Kate can, but with a Dylanesque smirk, as if he knows something the rest of us can only guess.  The film is worth watching just for her, and her Oscar nomination was well-deserved. 

The bizarre questions Quinn is asked, which I am sure were asked of Dylan at some point or another, seem so posturing and nonsensical that I am no longer baffled by Dylan’s changing of his persona, he was probably trying to escape from the public.  We also see a magazine ad move in its frame like something from Harry Potter, very realistic.  The gorgeous Julianne Moore plays a Joan Baez-like character very believably.  While some versions of Quinn look different from each other, they sound and act similarly, but the Gere sections seem to have nothing to do with anything else.  Sometimes, the flashbacks within flashbacks also become difficult to work with, but even at well over two hours I found myself not wanting to stop watching. 

We see Mr. Quinn meet Alan Ginsberg the poet, who seemed to be one of his true heroes, and the whole scene of Quinn in a limo and Ginsberg on a bicycle seems oddly metaphoric of the poets and troubadours Dylan more or less left behind as the world forgot them and embraced him. There is an interesting scene in which he is told to sing about his own time, not trains and the Civil War.  He takes this to heart.  And suddenly we are transported to Greenwich Village in the early 1960’s. These juxtapositions I think try to show the various elements that mixed to make the man. 

It would have been more interesting to me to place Dylan in the modern era, trying to find his way and do away with the pretense of biography altogether.  Then you can do the songs in a more modern style. Maybe someone else will do that.  Or maybe the makers of the film and its stars think everything was better back then. 

Dylan performing his gospel tune “Pressing On” is incredible; this whole period was missed by many listeners including me. 

Video  ***1/2

The black and white footage shifts in and out of the colorful footage of the rural south and the surreal dream-like sequences, all of it lovely in its own right, and they seamlessly change much like the audio.  Again, whether you like the film or not, you have to appreciate the craftsmanship.  It serves the subject well and is not a game on its own as in many comic-book movies.

Audio  ***1/2

The rear channels are used very sparingly, which is a shame, but the overall mix is so good with music, special effects, and the constant flashbacks interwoven nicely.  The recordings of Dylan himself and the new recordings seem to blend effortlessly.  For this alone the filmmakers deserve kudos.

Features ***1/2

I recommend watching some of the features first to better understand what the film is about.  Disc One includes feature director and co-writer Todd Haynes, on-screen lyrics, menus that enable you to choose either scenes or songs, which is very clever and should be used more often in films involving music!  There is also an introduction to the film which I recommend watching second, after the trailers on the second disc.  That disc also includes deleted scenes, alternate and extended scenes, outtakes, auditions, “A Conversation with Todd Haynes” (which is also recommended as a prelude to watching the film itself), the red carpet premiere, still galleries, and more Dylan –ographies.  

Summary:

At first I really didn’t want to like this film, but it surprised me and I am glad I watched it.  Some critics have suggested that multiple viewings are needed, and I am inclined to agree.  I also heard many excellent Dylan tunes with which I was unfamiliar.  It is not only well-done but serves to teach us about its subject as a biopic should.  We feel like we know more about Dylan but also makes us realize how little we really know.  I am far from an expert on Dylan, but I knew enough to enjoy the film and I enjoyed it enough to want to learn more above Bob.

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