Published on March 27th, 2013 | by Clint Davis
I’m Not There 
Summary: This semi-biopic of Bob Dylan will prove near-impossible for non-fans to access, but for Dylan lovers it's very rewarding. Possibly Cate Blanchett's best work.
R | 135 min.
Director: Todd Haynes | Screenplay: Todd Haynes & Oren Moverman
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Heath Ledger, Christian Bale, Richard Gere, Ben Whishaw, Marcus Carl Franklin
Studio: The Weinstein Company (US) / Paramount Pictures (UK)
To say that director Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There was made for Bob Dylan fanatics, would be a great understatement. To say that the film is damn-near impossible to follow without at least an elementary knowledge of Dylan’s work, would be closer to the truth.
People who pick up I’m Not There looking for a casual biopic on one of music’s most original and influential voices, will certainly walk away frustrated and likely disappointed. Thinking of this as a typical exercise in biographical filmmaking is the definition of mistaking an apple for an orange. I’m Not There has more in common with Julie Taymor’s trippy Across the Universe than James Mangold’s Walk the Line. While this film does borrow its storyline, settings, and aesthetics from Dylan’s lyrics and mythos–it’s as far from conventional as any American movie in recent memory.
Viewers who are interested in learning the back story of Dylan, his musical influences, and the stories behind some of his best songs should look more toward Martin Scorsese’s lengthy documentary No Direction Home, or better yet–buy the records. This film was made by, and for, dedicated fans of his work–and was designed more as a companion to his lyrical stories than an explanation of them.
The central theme of I’m Not There is an exploration into six pivotal facets of Bob Dylan’s career/persona. These stages of his life are represented by six actors playing characters in at least three varying time periods. Richard Gere portrays Billy, an outlaw who represents the singer’s fascination with legends of the American west like Billy the Kid. Billy is Dylan at his most reclusive and withdrawn, following his popularity in the mid-1960s. Gere represents the Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid era of his career. Christian Bale, in the most subtle performance of the movie, is Jack Rollins/Pastor John–a seminal folk singer of his day, who eventually cracks under pressure and dedicates his life to Christianity. This character signifies not only Dylan’s distaste for the lofty expectations thrust upon him following success, and his subsequent conversion to Christianity as he cut albums like Slow Train Coming (my favorite album of his canon).
Next, we have Heath Ledger as Robbie Clark, a talented young actor who portrays Jack Rollins in a biopic-within-the-film, leading to his own fame. Clark possibly represents Dylan’s own portrayal of himself in the media following his own mainstream breakthrough. Also present in Ledger’s storyline is the bitter breakup that caused the writing and recording of the singer’s pain-riddled 1975 record Blood on the Tracks. Actor Ben Whishaw (recently rising to fame as the new Q in Skyfall–previously brilliant in the BBC miniseries The Hour) plays Arthur Rimbaud–clearly an homage to the 19th century French poet that is known to have inspired Dylan. Rimbaud’s scenes are all in black & white and feature him being interrogated by a nondescript group of authority figures, likely representing the legions of media members who questioned the singer’s every lyric during his switch to rock and roll in the late-60s.
A young unknown named Marcus Carl Franklin portrays a rail-riding, blues-singing prodigy calling himself Woodie Guthrie. Woodie represents the larger-than-life myth that Dylan created as his own origin story upon arriving in New York’s Greenwich Village. Finally, the always-reliable Cate Blanchett takes on the most-difficult task of all–looking and sounding like the legendary singer without doing a bad impression of him. Her character’s name is Jude Quinn, and is the only one of all six that is overtly reminiscent of Bob Dylan. Quinn is “electric” Dylan, following his addition of a rock band in 1965–this is the singer at his most bombastic and rebellious.
As the title suggests, Dylan is not explicitly found in this film (his name is seen only twice, at the opening and closing credits, and the man himself is seen only in its closing moments), however his spirit hangs in every frame. A common motif present in I’m Not There is the characters’ fear of being pigeonholed by outside expectations of what they should be. Bale’s Jack Rollins grows frustrated with the public’s perception of him as only a “protest song” writer, while Franklin’s Woodie is in constant motion–fearful of being caught and taken back to a juvenile punishment center in Minnesota (Dylan’s home state). The movie even opens with his lively tune “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” which is all about a helpless yearning for everything you don’t possess.
Many of Dylan’s great tunes are present in the film’s soundtrack, ranging from “Visions of Johanna” and “Ballad of a Thin Man” to “Maggie’s Farm” and the later “Cold Irons Bound”. Again, non-Dylan fans will likely feel left out during I’m Not There‘s more than two-hours of running time, as unlike other musical biopics, many of his more well-known works are not present. You won’t hear “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35”, “The Times They Are a-Changin'”, or “Mr. Tambourine Man”…but you will hear “Blind Willie McTell”!
The performances are strong, especially given how abstract the screenplay is. These characters are fleshed out in conjunction with Dylan’s lyrics, but without that extra background, they aren’t all created equal. Jack, Jude, and Robbie are given particular care while Willie and Billy seem more like afterthought. I have to single out Cate Blanchett though, as in this Oscar-nominated turn she is incredible. She’s certainly one of the great actresses we have today and as Jude Quinn, she may have pulled off her greatest performance that will also go down as the stuff of legend. When she expels her personal demons to the audience followed by a sly look into the camera, it honestly gave me chills.
Overall, as a Dylan fan, I really enjoyed the execution of I’m Not There–but when reviewing this film, I must say it does a lot to alienate a larger portion of its audience. This movie asks a lot of its viewers and can either be rewarding or a frustrating, confusing, and pretentious piece of art-house cinema. Bottom line, if you’re a fan of Saint Bob, you need to see this film, if not–pick up the records and maybe a few biographies before treading into this labyrinth.