December 6, 2007

REVIEW: I'm Not There (B+)

Background: The musician biopic trend has had a resurgence the last few years, fueled by the success of Ray and Walk the Line. Todd Haynes (2002's Far From Heaven) offers what looks to be the only real entry of 2007 with I'm Not There, inspired by the life and music of Bob Dylan. Haynes, who also co-wrote the screenplay, experiments with a new kind of portrayal here: six different actors as Bob Dylan - Marcus Carl Franklin (in his film debut), Christian Bale (Rescue Dawn), Cate Blanchett (Babel), Heath Ledger (Brokeback Mountain), Ben Whishaw (Perfume: The Story of a Murderer), and Richard Gere (The Hoax). Several familiar faces act in supporting roles, notably Bruce Greenwood (Deja Vu) and Charlotte Gainesbourg (The Science of Sleep). Dylan gave permission for Haynes to use his music and life story (the only non-documentary filmmaker to ever receive it), but he does not make an appearance himself, except in archival footage. I'm Not There was a seven year project for Haynes, and was filmed primarily in Canada and L.A. Read more about it in this NYT Magazine article from October.

Synopsis: Instead of a synopsis, I can only just (try to) explain the roles of each character, since the stories intertwine and cross-cut each other. The movie doesn't really start or end in any logical order. There is the youngest Dylan (Franklin), a Woody Guthrie wannabe who hops trains to anywhere and makes friends whenever he takes out his guitar. There is the brooding folk Dylan (Bale), who sings about civil rights and righteousness, but who we don't meet very intimately. There is the blase, Dinkytown-era Dylan (Whishaw), whose limited screen time is itself limited to black and white candid interview footage. There is the arrogant jerk Dylan (Ledger), who has a love-hate relationship with his wife (Gainesbourg). There is the pioneer/Billy the Kid Dylan (Gere), who lives in a bizarre Old West-era town, and whose character I understood the least. And, most prominently, there is the rebel Dylan (Blanchett), who simultaneously plugs in (musically) and pulls out (publicly). Much of this Dylan's screen time is a reenactment of an interview with a BBC reporter (Greenwood), and it includes the movie's trippiest moments.

I Loved:
+ The cinematography - the occasional use of black and white made the colors much richer, and provided a symbolism I don't think I even understood.
+ The music, of course - whether sung by the actors or by Dylan himself.
+ Cate Blanchett, who shattered my skepticism with an incredible performance.
+ The scene in which Bale, as a preacher, leads the choir in "Pressing On."

I Liked:
+ Heath Ledger and Christian Bale, both of whom continue to show their range.
+ "Ballad of a Thin Man"

I Disliked:
- Marcus Carl Franklin - it was an interesting idea, but he seemed a little too young...or something, I can't really put my finger on it. His acting seemed awkward, as if he were on stage.
- Julianne Moore, again. Eh. She's been in several of Haynes's movies, but why here? Just to be part of the project I guess.

I Hated:
Not really understanding what was going on or who was who- the plot was inaccessible to those of us who aren't disciples of Dylan.

Writing - 8
Acting - 10
Production - 9
Emotional Impact - 8
Music - 5!
Significance - 4

Total: 44/50= 88% = B+

Last Word: Let me first admit here that I don't have an extensive knowledge of Bob Dylan's life, or even his music, beyond of course his hits and covers of his work by others. That being said, I found I'm Not There pretty fascinating, even though I couldn't always connect the dots. The acting was superb, and Cate Blanchett should certainly receive Oscar consideration for her performance here. Todd Haynes tried an innovative storytelling process, and for the most part it worked. I'm tempted here to compare I'm Not There with this year's Across the Universe, another artistic musical movie. The difference of course is that I'm Not There is a representation of the artist and the not the music. But still I find similarities, most obviously in the fact that the movies are probably mind-boggling to the average person who doesn't have a baseline knowledge level going into it. I admit it's unfair to criticize the film because of that (if you don't know, then don't go), but I think I probably would have enjoyed it more if some parts were spelled out more clearly. In any case, I find myself more interested in the life and influence of Bob Dylan, and I think I'm Not There will stand as seminal film for future generations of Dylan fans.

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