Tuesday, April 27, 2010

MOVIE REVIEW: I'm Not There - A Biography of Bob Dylan

By Jacob Destree

Tod Haynes' 2007 docu-drama "I'm Not There" is a poetic meditation on the life and career of Bob Dylan. In tone and structure, the film is a radical departure from traditional music biopics.

Haynes' screenplay accepts as its basic premise, that Dylan's story is too enigmatic to be summarized in conventional narrative terms. His solution is to cast six different actors to portray different aspects of Dylan's personality, at various stages in his lengthy career. The characters are given alternate names (like Jude Quinn, or Billy the Kid) and their stories take liberties with Dylan's life (one of them is an actor, not a musician) in order to convey the shifting nature of Dylan's art. The actors include both an African American boy and a woman.

The woman is Cate Blanchett. Along with Heath Ledger, they deliver the two most solid Dylan incarnations in the film. Blanchett was nominated for an Oscar for her vivid portrayal of Dylan in the mid-sixties. She brilliantly conveys the alienation that comes with fame, and the pointlessness of celebrity.

Ledger, on the other hand, plays Dylan later in life - after he had turned his back on pop music. His scenes depict the breakup of Dylan's marriage, and the inherent difficulty of balancing a public persona with a private life. Ledger's performance is introspective and understated, like Dylan's albums in the early seventies.

The other performances are good too, but none can overcome Haynes' self-conscious, reference-stuffed script. He incorporates many allusions to the real-life Dylan which are disorganized and lacking context.
Using song titles as dialogue, for example, strikes a particularly hamfisted tone. In one scene, Cate Blanchett's Jude Quinn is confronted by a crazed fan with a knife. When a groupie subdues the fan by smashing a bottle over his head, Quinn quips, "Just like a woman!" Winks and nods to real-life Dylan trivia needn't be so cringe inducing as that!

It begs the question as to whether Haynes' entire approach is even necessary. Surely a traditional biopic like "Walk The Line" feels genuine (in part) because Johnny Cash talks like a real person. If he cuddled up next to his wife June and whispered in her ear, "I walk the line... because you're mine," no one would take the film seriously.

Fortunately, for each such misstep, "I'm Not There" corrects course with a sure-footed step. (Richie Havens delights in a brief singing role, and David Cross steals a scene as poet Allen Ginsburg.) But by the end, writer/ director Haynes has meandered too much. "I'm Not There" offers only a vague semblance of a musician and his art. Maybe this is all one can expect when the subject of the piece is as enigmatic as Dylan.

Yet we are left to wonder: perhaps seeing six different sides of Bob Dylan is simply another side of Bob Dylan too many.

Grade: B

Written By Jacob Destree. Do you love the cinema too? Go to Jacob Destree's Movie Blog and read all about the latest blockbusters and classic movies. Only at jacobdestree.wordpress.com!

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