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I’m Not There is available to rent and buy digitally on Chili and Amazon Prime and on Blu-ray and DVD. This article is also available to buy in Michael Gray’s compendium Outttakes on Bob Dylan.

This is, for a start, the perfect title for a film about Bob Dylan – and must have been the perfect title for Todd Haynes to have proposed to Bob Dylan in the first place, to secure his blessing and the rights to use his songs.

This feature was first published in the January 2008 issue of Sight & Sound

For if there’s one thing totally predictable about Bob Dylan, it’s his desire to maintain his career-long stance as the artful dodger. And the idea of representing some of the crucial manifestations of Bob Dylan with six different actors was simple but also ingenious and beguiling, and no doubt appealed to the current version of Bob Dylan, who seems today, at 66, to be so interested in his own artistic history, instead of being the man whose motto was once Dont Look Back.

(There was, with pointless defiance, no apostrophe in that phrase when it was the title of the gorgeous cinema verité film by D.A. Pennebaker that documented Dylan’s 1965 visit to a Britain that still was black and white, or at least foggy monochrome, with an industrial north full of smoking chimneys and street urchins on cobbled back alleys far from Swinging London – two worlds bridged only by the moptop Beatles before Dylan descended as if from another planet, to be photographed levitating among ragamuffin scousers and staring out of the grimy window of a steam train crossing the Pennines, as well as holding a giant lightbulb and chainsmoking through the London Airport melee and the Savoy hotel press conference.)

You might say, too, on the evidence of Haynes’s earlier film Far from Heaven (2002), that here is the ideal director for any film set in a past recent enough for its distinctive period look, and the way it photographed itself at the time, to be recognised by those of a certain age. Far from Heaven, as narrative, declines into an implausible ‘so what?’, but as a long, long stare into the undergrowth of a specific era, rendered with all the hushed curiosity of David Attenborough peering through the bushes at soon-to-be-extinct gorillas, it is heart-stoppingly beautiful.

Christian Bale in I'm Not There (2007)

With I’m Not There Haynes has decided not to bother about narrative plausibility, instead letting his masterly gift for period jump around the timezones of Dylan’s first two decades of creative work. We move recurrently from black and white to colour and back again as we encounter – and certainly not in chronological order – the wannabe Guthrie boy with the chubby cheeks and the fantasy CV; the protest singer; the amphetamine genius of 1965-66; the Basement Tapes country dropout who crashes his motorbike and saddles up a horse, morphing into Peckinpah’s Billy the Kid along the way; the philanderer whose art created Blood on the Tracks; and the sartorially challenged live performer-preacher from Saturday Night Live, 1979-style.

While all the hype shouts that this is as far from the tired old conventional biopic as possible, for the Dylan aficionado it works exactly like a biopic.

The viewer who, like me, knows all Haynes’s Dylanesque allusions off by heart has no difficulty whatever in following the story – a standard postmodernist fusion of fact and fiction – through all these episodic set pieces, no matter that not one on-screen character is named either Bob or Dylan or that they are played, among others, by a Black youth (Marcus Carl Franklin), an Englishman (Christian Bale), a woman (Cate Blanchett) and a raddled and slightly paunchy Richard Gere. The unexpected upshot is that while all the hype about the film shouts that this is as far from the tired old conventional biopic as possible, for the Dylan aficionado it works exactly like a biopic.

Marcus Carl Franklin in I'm Not There (2007)

Like a biopic, it gets some things more right than others and some more wrong. Like a biopic, it tries to touch upon the main dramas of the life and the career – and it would be rare, even within the most plodding film of the genre, not to point up the tussles between public success and private failings. Like a biopic, it tries to get close to its subject while relying on the shorthand of whatever myths are to be found blowing around. And like a biopic, it asks one star to impersonate another.

In general films of this kind aim to be compelling, and contemporary in their telling, by means of a seductive kind of suprarealism and by tougher scripting than in Hollywood’s golden age. I don’t much go in for biopics myself, but I was dragged along to see James Mangold’s Walk the Line, on Johnny Cash, and submitted voluntarily to Taylor Hackford’s Ray (re Charles, as it were). I admired both. Watching Ray, I often forgot that Jamie Foxx wasn’t Ray. Watching Walk the Line, I found Joaquin Phoenix as Cash and Reese Witherspoon as June Carter more convincing than their real-life counterparts.

Unlike a biopic, though, with I’m Not There you have to know the subject’s story before you watch the film. Yet that may not limit the audience too much. In choosing Bob Dylan, at this time, Haynes comes running along behind Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home (2005), which itself gobbled up footage from Dylan’s widely unseen and previously obscure Eat the Document (1971) to put Dylan up there in the mainstream pantheon at last.

Heath Ledger in I’m Not There

Up there, that is, no longer just as the very famous minority-taste fixation of an ageing generation but as an authenticated All-American-20th-Century Hero alongside Brando, Monroe and Presley. Besides, Bob Dylan continues to pull in wave after generational wave of new young people, drawn to him usually by the work of his youth – and especially by the clarity and continued aptness of the pre-electric socio-political songs so long taken for granted and largely ignored by the original baby boomer audience so excited by Dylan’s going electric instead.

Oddly, perhaps, it was Scorsese whose film drew out the magic not only of the solo acoustic young Dylan but of the whole Greenwich Village bohemian scene, while Todd Haynes, who was born in the same year Dylan began recording, is clearly entranced only by the electrified, wild-mercury mid-1960s Dylan. This is where his film begins, and where it loves to linger and admire. This Dylan dies in the motorbike crash at the start, only to rise again in three minutes and in a thrilling, brief sequence, to inhabit the viewer – as I watch the film, I am that wild-mercury Bob walking on to the stage in a blur of adrenalin rush to join the Hawks, who are straining at the leash but in a whirl of bewilderment as I take up my position ready to provoke all that shouting and outrage.

If nothing else in the film quite matches the exceptional vividness of this moment, Todd Haynes’s real love of his own medium – his powerful understanding of how film looks on the big screen – yields comparable drama many times in what follows. There is mesmerising footage early on of black-and-white New York City and dazzlingly coloured rural America running alongside Dylan’s studio sides of Stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again and Nashville Skyline Rag, segueing into Moonshiner (a resourceful bumping-together of different Dylans in itself).

There is a scene set to Simple Twist of Fate – Dylan kids playing in the park so it’s the early 1970s – and you can date it instantly because what we see, affectingly, is exactly the colouration we have at home on all the Kodacolour prints of our own lives we snapped at the time. Haynes is surely unmatched at this fond precision: we are plunged, in the blink of a frame, into the early 1970s.

Ben Whishaw in I'm Not There (2007)

In interviews Haynes has seemed to rush to forestall the anticipated nitpickery of Dylanists (like me). He told Sean O’Hagan in the Observer Music Monthly: “To me, it’s like the ultimate misunderstanding of Dylan to try and pin him down by collecting and endlessly analysing everything he does.” Whereas Haynes “wanted to track Dylan’s creative imagination and where it took him and how his life mirrored that imagination, or propelled it, or followed it.” (Oh, is that all?)

One of the many ways that Dylan dragged us into the contemporary world was by breaking the rules of the game by which the daftest of media questions was always answered with dull solemnity by every celebrity.

For me, at least, the inaccuracies and tweakings of the myth are thoroughly untroubling. The only times I want to demur are in those very few places where the screenplay’s interventions serve up something less effective for the film than a closer reading of Dylan’s own script would give.

Why rewrite the perfect Manchester Free Trade Hall “Judas!” moment? Cate Blanchett’s Dylan has that word shouted at her twice instead of once, and then replies far less succinctly and alertly than Bob did. He said: “I don’t believe you. You’re a liar.” It was anti-showbiz in a trice – personal, open, brief, clear and direct dialogue. Cate’s response is a stumbling, blurred and tired generalisation: “You’re all liars.” A hopeless substitution.

Cate Blanchett in I'm Not There (2007)

A different foolish move is to take some of the speech out of the mouth of the marvellously wise-beyond-his-years Bob Dylan, who is only 23 and suddenly the hippest person alive and yet who talks in earnest honesty to the hapless Horace Judson, the hack in a mac from Time magazine, telling him that since each of us might die at any time, each must decide how seriously to take that and should know our purpose in the world. When Judson asks Dylan, “Do you care what you sing?”, Dylan’s riposte – “How could I answer that if you’ve got the nerve to ask me?” – is, in context, restrained, almost like a mentor guiding a child towards enlightenment.

Haynes says he marvels at Dylan’s interviews of the period as performance art and he’s generally right: one of the many ways that Dylan dragged us into the contemporary world was by breaking the rules of the game by which the daftest of media questions was always answered with dull solemnity by every celebrity. (Even rebellious 1950s Elvis had said “Yes, sir” and “Yes, ma’am” to reporters.) Yet at moments like this Dylan’s technique of countering a dumb question with a more acute one of his own comes across as just desirous of direct communication. Taken out of context, it is reduced to being part of Blanchett Bob’s spoilt-brat petulance.

But such falls into clumsiness are a small price to pay for the film’s exuberant visual richness, for the pay-off we get from the fact that in the end Haynes is more wholly in love with cinema than with his iconic Bob Dylan.

To Dylan people it’s a small surprise, but no transgression, that Haynes shoots 1966, as well as 1965, in black and white (we’re used to Dont Look Back’s 1965 bursting into the colour of Eat the Document’s 1966). It’s a larger surprise that while Charlotte Gainsbourg plays a French (or French-Canadian?) painter who’s an amalgam of Sara Dylan and Suze Rotolo, this superficial fictionalising allows Haynes to get away with peeking quite long and hard at the real first Dylan marriage and its breakdown.

Heath Ledger in I'm Not There (2007)

As I watched the scenes between Gainsbourg and the Heath Ledger Bob (we know it’s him by the sunglasses), I thought of the way the Bob’n’Sara divorce settlement bound her to lifelong silence and wondered how she might feel to see this Dylan-endorsed Hollywood movie sprawling their lives across the screen. And again, it’s not long since Dylan’s lawyers were leaning on the filming of George Hickenlooper’s Factory Girl to try to stop anyone suggesting that he and Edie Sedgwick had a relationship, yet in I’m Not There the long sequence in Warhol Factory New York has Cate Blanchett Bob and Edie centre stage, the warring cool couple, young and thin and beautiful and, plain as studio lighting, in a relationship.

These Bob Dylans are not, at base, disparate or separate characters but differing stages in the growth of a man and in the ebbs and flows of a great artist.

I think it’s inspired to conflate the going-up-the-country of the Woodstock years with the Durango outlaw milieu of Dylan-as-Alias in Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. I think it’s truly inspired that there’s a sudden correspondence created by the temporal impossibility of this rural-retreat reclusive coun­try-rocker and hunted-outlaw Dylan jumping on to a boxcar and finding the Woody Guthrie guitar of the young hobo dreamer Dylan who had hung around in Minnesota and Colorado before ever he came to New York City.

It’s some kind of cyclical salvation, and in its way it admits a truth the film largely appears to deny: namely that these Bob Dylans are not, at base, disparate or separate characters but differing stages in the growth of a man and in the ebbs and flows of a great artist.

Ben Whishaw in I'm Not There (2007)

One Dylan can very often be seen turning into the next, and certainly it seems a redundancy that Haynes splits into two the Dylan of the late-1965 press conferences (Ben Whishaw as the Arthur Rimbaud Bob) and the Blanchett Bob of 1965-66. Still, these largely separated Bob worlds are all portrayed with vigour and with what often comes across as a Dylanesque instinctive intelligence – as when Whishaw’s press-conference Dylan is questioned not by reporters but by what seems to be some kind of House UnAmerican Activities Committee.

Richard Gere in I'm Not There (2007)

I had qualms only about the section depicting Dylan and the Band 1967-68, the world so memorably dubbed by Greil Marcus as “the old, weird America”. The use of records as the soundtrack is powerful and celebratory from start to finish (it’s striking how central Blonde on Blonde is) and it’s hugely gratifying to find Dylan’s own spooky, oft-bootlegged recording of the title song out here officially for all the world to hear. But even the piercing beauty of Dylan’s 1967 Gain’ to Acapulco, sung by Jim James of My Morning Jacket, can’t quite redeem this staginess (which, like all the scenes with Richard Gere, lacks the certainty of the rest). This particular weird America starts to look too much like the unconvincing marketing job that was the front cover of the official Basement Tapes double-LP suddenly come to theatrical life.

This, of course, is to collide again with an unease about Dylan’s own shift towards a deliberate reprocessing of his legend. For there’s a hint of unseemly remarketing-exercise about this. If it began with that Basement Tapes front cover, it reached its apogee with the dreadful Masked and Anonymous of 2003, a hopelessly ponderous film mostly about Dylan’s mystique.

There’s nothing ponderous about I’m Not There, however: it’s a highly charged rejoicing in film itself. Todd Haynes didn’t have to rearrange their faces and give them all another name – but he has done it with style and grace. It doesn’t even matter that one of the things the film can’t help but show is that none of these star actors comes within striking distance of the mid-1960s Dylan’s charisma and beauty. Perhaps it’s a fan’s touch on Haynes’s part that in the end he reaches for some more of that Eat the Document footage – a slice that Scorsese didn’t trust the attention span of his audience enough to show, of Dylan conjuring his most inventively intimate harmonica on stage in 1966, the camera lingering in close-up on the real Bob Dylan.

Further reading

The freewheelin’ music documentary: D.A. Pennebaker looks back at Bob Dylan and Dont Look Back

By Leigh Singer

The freewheelin’ music documentary: D.A. Pennebaker looks back at Bob Dylan and Dont Look Back

Playing in a different key

By Brad Stevens

Playing in a different key

The many faces of Bob Dylan in the movies

By Craig Williams

The many faces of Bob Dylan in the movies

Where to begin with Todd Haynes

By Simran Hans

Where to begin with Todd Haynes

Sight & Sound June 2021

In our current issue, Mark Kermode and Prano Bailey–Bond talk Censor and the 80s British censorship massacre. Read if you dare! Plus the history of ‘video nasties’, Kelly Reichardt on First Cow, Suzanne Lindon’s Spring Blossom, the sprawling brilliance of Robert Altman’s Nashville, and vintage Jack Nicholson. Available in print and digitally.

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