Musings on Dylan “biopic”, I’m Not There

"Never create anything," says, uh, "Bob Dylan". "It'll just be misinterpreted." Just as Dylan himself has been open to an awful lot of misinterpretation over the years, it seems highly likely the same fate could befall Todd Haynes' film I'm Not There, which I saw this morning, ahead of its first public screening next Saturday (Oct 27), at the London Film Festival.

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“Never create anything,” says, uh, “Bob Dylan”. “It’ll just be misinterpreted.”

Just as Dylan himself has been open to an awful lot of misinterpretation over the years, it seems highly likely the same fate could befall Todd Haynes’ film I’m Not There, which I saw this morning, ahead of its first public screening next Saturday (Oct 27), at the London Film Festival.

As a cinematic experiment, I’m Not There is fascinating. The idea of casting six different actors as various aspects of Dylan is in itself a brave conceit. But what’s important to flag up is that this is not, strictly speaking, a biopic, as linear as Ray or Walk The Line. Only Cate Blanchett‘s Jude Quinn is locked to a specific chapter of Dylan’s career — from playing the Newport festival (or, as it is here, the New England Jazz & Folk Festival) to his tour of England in 1966. We get the “Judas!” moment at Manchester Free Trade Hall, and a motorcycle crash. These things we know, at least, are facts.

The other “Dylans” in the film loosely correspond to his life, or aspects of it. Christian Bale‘s Jack Rollins is clearly Dylan the protest singer who, later in the film, turns to Christianity, as Dylan himself did in the 1970s. The section featuring Heath Ledger‘s actor Robbie Clark deals with his split with wife Claire, an artist played by Charlotte Gainsbourgh, who seems to be a composite of Suze Rotolo and Sara Lownds.

Marcus Carl Franklin’s Woddy Guthrie is a nine year-old black kid riding the rails and Ben Wishaw’s Arthur Rimbaud references Dylan-as-poet. Finally, there’s Richard Gere‘s Billy The Kid, inhabiting a Wild West inspired by the offbeat costumery and make-up on the Rolling Thunder tour and the sleeve of The Basement Tapes. This is a much more impressionistic take on Dylan’s art, perhaps, than anything recognisably biographical.

What I think surprised me most of all is how playful the film is, stylistically. He mixes faux documentary footage (notably the straight to camera reminiscences of Julianne Moore’s Joan Baez analog “Alice Fabian”) with fantasy sequences, like Quinn floating off into the sky on a balloon. The Beatles briefly cameo, rolling around on the lawn of a posh country house, their voices speeded-up and helium squeaky. It’s also very beautiful to look at, from the crisp black-and-white of the Quinn sequences, to the rich, Sirk-style Technicolor Haynes deploys to shoot the landscape in the Billy The Kid segment.

He loops around the place, too, jumping between stories, chronology never safe. One minute, we’re in amphetamined Sixties’ London, the next jumping trains in 1959. At one point, two “Dylans” meet — though the outcome is nowhere near as disastrous as, say, two different incarnations of Doctor Who crossing timelines.

I guess what you want to know is: is it any good? Well, yes, it is. I have minor reservations. I thought Bale’s performance conspicuously mannered, and the Billy The Kid episode meandered a bit too much for my liking. The film’s emotional core comes from Ledger and Gainsbourgh and their disintegrating relationship. Blanchett, though, is extraordinary; she’s *got* Dylan, perfectly. I’d have been happy, in a way, for Haynes to have turned in a shot-for-shot remake of Dont Look Back with Blanchett. That would have been a hoot, though probably met with the kind of hostility that greeted Gus Van Sant‘s much misunderstood remake of Psycho.

Talking of hostility, I’ve not yet encountered any negative response to the film. Admittedly, most of my discussions have been with other film critics, who perhaps have a different take to the more hardened Bobcats.

Reading the production notes, there’s an interesting quote from Haynes, when he relates a conversation he had with Dylan’s long-term manager, Jeff Rosen.

“I didn’t want this film to just be about who Dylan married or what drugs he did and all those things that biopics relish. I wanted to do it right. Once, I was talking to Jeff Rosen and I said, ‘This is a big honour! I feel I have to represent Dylan to the world and I want to do it accurately and carefully!’ And Jeff just said: ‘Todd, don’t even think about that. This is your own weird interpretation of Bob Dylan, and that’s all you have to worry about.'”

Fair point.

I’m Not There opens in the UK in December.
The soundtrack is out on Columbia Records on Oct 29.


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