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Across the Universe is not the only film this year to use a musician’s work as the backbone to a story. Todd Haynes has used the life and music of singer Bob Dylan in order to composite a tale of his many selves in I’m Not There. I know little about the director, besides the names and accolades thrown towards his previous two theatrical works, and besides liking Dylan’s songs, I’m not privy to a huge wealth of information on him. There were some rudimentary tidbits, which I found hidden in my head during the film from my Rock’N’Roll Music History class in college, but I think if I knew more I would not have enjoyed the surrealistic journey close to as much as I did. This is not a masterpiece in the complete sense of the word. As an experiment, however, it is a fascinating look into the life of a man that changed his image so often and never conformed to be the person that his fans wanted him to be. Having six characters play him at different periods of his creative journey shows the inventiveness put on display. There is nothing mainstream about the film, and that is a good thing. If I were to have one complaint, it would be the fact that it almost was not surreal enough. It was the overlapping that intrigued me—the versions of his life through a young boy’s love of Woody Guthrie and the anonymity of an older man’s Billy the Kid. No disrespect to the four other personas, but they were just a tad too much impersonation, not enough creative representation.

Haynes is definitely a gifted filmmaker. The compositions and transitions are remarkable and never static or boring. He keeps the tone consistent and never goes off track with the underlying theme he is conveying. Whereas a film like Across the Universe derailed at times, Haynes harnesses this one by always keeping us off-balance and not knowing what might happen next. The music didn’t tell the story; it enhanced it. Showing more the time period of our current Dylan stand-in, the music never took the lead to overshadow the actors onscreen. However, there are still some beautiful moments, like the funeral scene during the Billy the Kid thread. Although I liked the fact that the music didn’t taken control in order to manipulate the audience, it is still the sequence that does which sticks with me the most.

Our four major representations of Dylan are played by Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Ben Whishaw, and Heath Ledger. All do an amazing job, but their portrayals just seem too obvious. Maybe it was the technique used to show us their stories—I just wasn’t as interested in them as the final two variations. Whishaw is my favorite impression, a talking head narrating, as though in an interview, enhancing the other segments with background information. Bale’s section is the least successful, showing us his life as a Behind the Music segment, mostly from the mouth of Julianne Moore. It is too cold and calculated, with little to say except to give us the person for whom Ledger’s Robbie acts as in a film, leading him to meet his wife played by Charlotte Gainsbourg. His section is nice, showing us the transformation that fame and wealth and social relevance wrought on his soul. Gainsbourg shines and really it is her reactions to Ledger that resonate. As for Blanchett, her piece is the iconic Dylan—the badass who went electric and left all his fans behind him. She is great as the worked up, most likely drugged up, Jude Quinn telling the world that his music only needs to be relevant to him. He will not be a puppet for the world; if you hate his stuff, don’t listen to it.

What got me drawn in were the more expressionistic moments. Marcus Carl Franklin is quite a find here as a young drifter, wandering the world with his music. Innocent and pure, copycatting his idol Guthrie, he is at the cusp of Dylan’s first major transformation. With the death of the legend, he finally sees that it is time to become his own person and break through the barriers he has set up for himself. It was time to start singing about today’s problems and help create change in society. He is also one of three instances to cross over into another version’s story. Besides Ledger and Bale’s roles existing simultaneously and Bruce Greenwood’s oppressor manifesting in two separate stories, Franklin is seen entering Richard Gere’s Dylan world, the other remarkable metaphor for the singer’s life. As the real Billy the Kid, in hiding from the world and the authorities to live out his life in obscurity, he is brought back out to strike a change. One can’t buckle to the pressures of outsiders and critics, but instead push through and continue to be innovative.

These crossovers are great cinematic moments, helping bridge the gap between all six plot threads. Haynes made a bold move to tell the tale with fragmented personas overlapping and progressing. It is an idea that breeds surrealism and an ignoring of principles found in reality. I also loved his humor, bringing in the Beatles, Brian Jones, and a total mind-trip cameo by David Cross as Allen Ginsberg. I just wish Haynes would’ve gone full-bore into this parallel universe and not felt the need to every once in awhile bring us back to a realistic linear progression. The Bale/Ledger/Blanchett sequences do ground the story to be more comprehensible, but I almost would have rather been completely unaware of what I had just seen then leaving with the sense of understanding that I did. I caught a few references spiced in of song lyrics, and it’s that stuff that I wanted more of. I hope Haynes continues to go in directions that are against the norm because when he does, he creates some marvelous scenes. He is on the right track, giving us a psychological insight into the timeline of one of America’s greatest enigmas.

I’m Not There 8/10

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photography:
courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival

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