First Impressions: I’m Not There (2007) ****

im-not-there-001-225.jpg“All I can do is be me. Whoever that is.”
Bob Dylan

I’m Not There, the new film from Todd Haynes (Safe, Far From Heaven) is difficult to categorize. It’s the story of Bob Dylan, but instead of trying to integrate the enigmatic musician’s various personae into a standard narrative, Haynes has held him up to a prism, splitting him into six pieces each played by a different actor, none of them actually named Bob Dylan. Instead of a story arc, the threads are held in place by Dylan’s wonderful music and it is for the audience to decide how the parts fit together. Or not.

It sounds like a pretentious gimmick and it could easily have turned into a sloppy mess. Some will no doubt say that’s exactly what it is. I disagree. It’s a ballsy, beautiful, cinematic ode to one of the heroes of American music. In retrospect, I don’t now how else you could do justice to the story of a man whose image has changed so much and so many times over the years. A straight forward biopic like Walk the Line may have been entertaining, but not illuminating.

I predict hard core Dylan fans are going to love it, but the rest of us are going to be split. Many will be turned off by the lack of narrative and they’ll hate it, but others will be drawn to two things. First, there’s a ton of great music spanning Dylan’s entire career that should appeal even to casual fans. Some is performed by Dylan himself, some by the actors in the film and some covered by other musicians. A highlight has Richie Havens singing Tombstone Blues. Second, there are some terrific performances that do a remarkable job of capturing bits of Dylan as he’s appeared throughout the years without stooping to simple mimicry. Richard Gere, Marcus Carl Franklin, Ben Wishaw, Heath Ledger and Christian Bale all do superb work, but it’s Cate Blanchett who is going to get most of the attention and probably deservedly so. Her portrayal of the early electric phase of Dylan’s career is worth the price of admission.

I liked this one a lot and planned to do a full review of it, but it’s a difficult film to sum up and I may have said all I can say about it here. We’ll see. In case I don’t come back to it, let’s give it a rating right now of 4 stars out of 5. I recommend it to Dylan fans (even casual fans of the man’s music), fans of Cate Blanchett or to anyone with the patience for an interesting film experiment.

I’m Not There opens Wednesday, November 21, 2007 in limited release.

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6 thoughts on “First Impressions: I’m Not There (2007) ****

  1. It’s been many a year since I’ve bought one of his CDs. In my late teens early twenties I fell in love with Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan because they seemed amazing poets first and foremost. By then both had impressive back catalogs. I’ve never been one to stay too long with one artist or genre – I tend to completely throw myself into something new I like, to the point of eventually blunting the original passion I experienced. Though of all musical genres alt rock and jazz are my staples. So my Dylan days are well behind me, I’m now more a casual fan. That said I have the greatest respect for the artist. Who could dispute his greatness and legacy?

    My interest in the film doesn’t reflect any particular curiosity about Dylan. It’s there because of Todd Haynes and a stunningly original concept.

  2. We just so happen to be watching No Direction Home at this very moment. Like, wow, man.

    The clip I’ve seen (with Blanchett and David Cross) is amazing. I’m what you could call a casual fan with a (meaningless) six-degrees type of connection, and that I don’t look back, either.

    Say what you want about Haynes, he’ s never boring. I’m there.

  3. Me too, I’m there. The trailer did it for me – as if I wouldn’t have seen it anyway. Not that I’m a Dylan nut, but his journey has been interesting enough, and I grew up on his music. That, plus the concept and Blanchett (not to mentiont he other stars) does it for me.

    Your review, CJ, has me feeling more hopeful than before about the film.

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