This post was first published by Suite101. It contains spoilers.
Released in 2007, I’m Not There (directed by Todd Haynes) is a unique presentation of biography. Liberally mixing fact and fiction, the film refuses to define its subject (the ever elusive Bob Dylan) in any clear or concrete way. Rather, I’m Not There suggests that it is impossible to really understand a person; that identity is fragmented, and changes not only across the years of a person’s life, but also from day to day.
I’m Not There is inspired by the “music and the many lives” of American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan. Dylan has become a legend as a musician and writer, and is often hailed as a poet for his lyrics. He is also a personality notorious for refusing to be pinned down. His musical career as well as his personal life (as portrayed by the media, at least) has constantly changed. Dylan shunned his growing status as a “voice of the people” in the early 1960s, was booed by folk fans in the late 60s for strumming an electric guitar and playing rock music, and dabbled in Christianity in the 1980s. As a subject, Dylan effectively demonstrates how human identities are fluid and changing.
Haynes’s decision to represent Dylan in the film using six different actors – including a woman (Cate Blanchett, nominated for an Academy Award for the role) and an African-American boy (Marcus Carl Franklin) – is an interesting one. Each character embodies a different era in Dylan’s life, and a different aspect of his personality. Christian Bale plays the most traditional version of Dylan – a young folk singer named Jack who rebels against the label of “protest singer”. Bale also plays a pastor later on in the film, representing Dylan’s 1980s “born again” phase. Heath Ledger (in one of his final roles) plays a young movie star named Robbie, who falls in love with a French artist and has a family (this character perhaps most closely resembles Dylan’s personal life, and his relationships with Joan Baez, Suze Rotolo, and Sara Dylan). Cate Blanchett plays the 1960s to 1970s rock-star Jude, and perhaps most closely resembles (at least physically) the “real” Dylan. Her portrayal of the singer’s reactions to fame and an increasingly hostile audience is raw and striking. Richard Gere – in perhaps the most surreal interpretation of Dylan’s personalities in the film – plays the outlaw Billy the Kid. Ben Whishaw is a man named Arthur, perhaps inspired by the French poet Arthur Rimbaud. Arthur appears in a recurring interview scene, and serves as a mouthpiece for Dylan’s quotes. Finally, Marcus Carl Franklin plays Woody, an eleven-year-old African-American guitar playing nomad. Dylan’s admiration for Woody Guthrie is paid tribute to in this interpretation.
I’m Not There can be a difficult film to watch, particularly if the viewer is not familiar with Dylan’s career or his music. However, as a surreal exploration of the ideas of identity and biography I’m Not There is thought-provoking and enjoyable. Many of the images in the film are arresting and beautiful, and often share poetic connections with Dylan’s lyrics. One such haunting moment comes when Richard Gere, as Billy, passes through a small town about to be demolished for the construction of a highway. He witnesses the townsfolk dressed up for Halloween, while at the same time mourning the looming loss of their homes. The scene is topped off by the oddly silent appearance of a giraffe (from a zoo that has been closed down). Some of these moments can come across as pretentious, and the film certainly walks a fine line between being interesting and inaccessible. However, it is not the film’s intention to be clear or conventional. I’m Not There is best watched in the same way dreams are experienced – by surrendering completely to images and sounds. The film also boasts an impressive soundtrack that spans Dylan’s career, and includes the previously unreleased track “I’m Not There”.
I’m Not There is a wild and rambling film about a personality that the media has struggled to understand for more than fifty years. It is refreshing to see a film that – rather than trying to say something definitive about its subject – moves along, much like a Dylan song does, from poetic image to poetic image, and leaves the rest up to interpretation.
I’m Not There runs for 135 minutes, and is rated R for language, sex and some nudity.