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I'm Not There

2008-06-09 07:25
What it's about:

This biographical film about legendary singer and songwriter Bob Dylan follows six distinct characters, depicting different stages of Dylan's life, embodying a different aspect of his life story and music.

What we thought of it:

Bob Dylan's earned his place high up in the popular folk rock canon. You know someone's really made it when experts drop phrases like "Bob Dylan's so overrated" as in "The Beatles are so overrated" into their daily patter, while many others pore over his life and worship his every work, and both are of course, deeply fascinated by him.

I'm Not There opens with a perfectly pitched, bitterly funny narration over one of the many bodies of Dylan: "There he lies. God rest his soul, and his rudeness. A devouring public can now share the remains of his sickness, and his phone numbers. There he lay: Poet, prophet, outlaw, fake, star of electricity..."

The film's opening hints that this won't be a straight biopic a la History Channel. Like Dylan's own strangely brilliant autobiography, which tells only the stories he chooses and not in any particular order or even with any certain honesty, I'm Not There gives the West's most famous singer-songwriter many faces – those of influences like Woodie Guthrie (played by the talented young black actor Marcus Carl Franklin, Guthrie was a musical child of the blues). He's the imaginary Jack Rollins (Christian Bale), whose popularity as a folk politico eats itself and whose cold touch contradicts his caring public image. He's the poet Arthur Rimbaud (played by the fey Ben Whishaw). He's the cruel egomaniac Robbie Clark (Heath Ledger), who is the cynical version of Jack Rollins. He's even the living legend who can't escape the law, Billy the Kid (by Richard Gere) in the psychedelic finale.

But the lead role – if you like – is that of the tragically charismatic star Jude Quin, who slouches through parties high on pills, delivering now-forgotten witticisms, adored, embarrassing, rude, self-obsessed, hugely insecure, and persuasively portrayed by Cate Blanchett – who instead of covering herself in make up used only her talent and a sock down her pants to completely become the star.

Writer-director Todd Haynes' obsession with rock's more fashionable royalty engages many aspects of its mythology – the glory, sure, but also the ugliness of its overgrown ego, its poetry, the sometimes sore beauty. He's done the somewhat annoying – and very fashionable – Velvet Goldmine (1998). More recently we saw the brilliant Far From Heaven (2002) and the Sonic Youth doccie Corporate Ghost (2004). All his movies are made over many years and the care he takes erases clichés and results in an exhausting but very beautiful density of meaning that few internationally-known filmmakers still bother to achieve. But of those I've seen, this is my favourite of his films. It doesn't bow to commercial interests, nor does it become just a little artistic circle-jerk for Hollywood's music literati. And that's probably some kind of miracle right there.

And the music? Oh, that. Well, it carries the film, especially if you've become a fan. Bob Dylan's not easy to cover, but the track listing reads like a who's who of cool pop, rock, anti-folk and indie royalty, and sounds even better, at least while you're watching the movie, though some interpretations are much more successful than others. The dull, never-before-released title track (performed by both Bob Dylan and by Sonic Youth) is strictly for obsessed fans though.

- Jean Barker

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Not so much a story of Bob Dylan's life as merged portraits of facets of his character, this intense film compresses meaning into an inspiring, overwhelming ride that will leave you exhausted, drained and fulfilled.

Colleen 2008/04/23 11:54 AM
Never knew rock had a cannon where do they keep it? "Bob Dylan's earned his place high up in the popular folk rock cannon." One assumes you mean CANON canon1 • noun 1 a general rule or principle by which something is judged. 2 a Church decree or law. 3 a collection of authentic sacred books. 4 the authentic works of a particular author or artist. 5 a list of literary works considered to be permanently established as being of the highest quality. 6 Music a passage or piece of music in which a theme is taken up by two or more parts that overlap. — ORIGIN Greek kanon ‘rule’. From OED online Colleen
Jaco 2008/04/23 6:16 PM
Very good review Thank you Jean, that was exactly the kind of information I was hoping to read. And Colleen, Dylan actually was rock's cannon. *smirk*
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