Our correspondent at the Venice Film Festival saw Todd Haynes‘ Dylan film I’m Not There this morning. Here’s our exclusive report.
“I accept chaos. I’m not sure that chaos accepts me.” With these words, the shaggy haired Arthur (Ben Whishaw), the film’s de facto narrator and self-styled renegade symbolist poet articulates one the more pertinent truths that arise in I’m Not There, Todd Haynes’ extraordinary biopic of Bob Dylan. Fans of Haynes’ surreal, impressionist glam-rock opera Velvet Goldmine will not what to expect, while those that hated it will know exactly what to fear.
Starring six different actors playing the singer through six distinct phases in his chameleonic career, I’m Not There is an academic exercise that strives for far more than biopic and quite shockingly succeeds. Tellingly subtitled The Lives And Time of Bob Dylan (note the latter singular), Haynes’ film is yet another formally playful dissection of pop culture, wilfully arty but unexpectedly powerful in its use of image and music.
Scattered with snippets of Arthur musing to camera, the film is not, as expected, a series of vignettes, with one Dylan morphing, Dr Who-like, into the next. Instead, there are five parallel timelines, starting with a young black boy named Woody (Marcus Carl Franklin) who acts as metaphor for the early troubadour Dylan, hopping trains with thoughts of Guthrie in his mind.
The film then skips to Jack Hawkins (Christian Bale), an angry folk singer whose songs and energy become a focal point for a generation. These scenes give way to a more classic Dylan figure, Jude Quinn (Cate Blanchett), an angry and intellectual figure, at war with the press and, more explicitly, with his fans, who he assaults, literally, with machine guns at his electric debut.
These incarnations seem obvious enough, but there are two more that give the film a more personal skew. Robbie (Heath Ledger), an actor-biker figure, and Billy (Richard Gere), a suede-jacketed outlaw that lives in a surreal, ongoing Western world, where the figure of Pat Garrett looms large.
Least successful, perhaps, is Pastor Joe (Bale again), a folkie turned preacher who abandons commercial music to perform for a local church.
Haynes claims never to have met or spoken to Dylan, and the film’s key strength is its fandom, using an interesting array of cuts, and tapping the iconic “Like A Rolling Stone” only in the end credits, when it segues into Antony & The Johnsons’ mournful “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”.
Certain songs do get centrepiece status, however, such as a blistering “Ballad Of A Thin Man“, performed by Blanchett, and The Band’s beautiful “Goin’ To Acapulco”, sung by a white-faced, Rolling Thunder-style Ledger. But the film has a lot for fairweather Dylan fans to get up to speed with fast, offering tidbits of biography with little explanation, illustrating his foray into fiction, for example, with the image of a giant tarantula (see what he did there?).
But for the most part, Dylan is his own screenwriter, and this is where I’m Not There really his its spot, recontextualising Dylan as a pop-culture phenomenon, surfing folk cult status, pop fame and bourgeios patronage, and projecting his successive alternate identities next to one another where we can see the differences and continuities.
It may not be to all tastes, and it’s Benny Hill style nod to Beatlemania will be the litmus test that decides its friends and foes, but this is terrific, provocative rock cinema, creating an experience that has to be seen and heard to be felt while also paying an appropriately cryptic homage to a self-made myth and legend.