I’m Not There: Two-Disc Collector’s Edition
May 2, 2008
If you want to do a decent biopic on a musician it helps to have their approval (or that of their estate) so that you have access to their catalogue of music. This has gotten harder with the debacle that was Oliver Stone’s take on The Doors (1991). This is even trickier with someone like Bob Dylan who is an evasive and elusive figure known to lie about his past in interviews. Independent filmmaker Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven) somehow gained his confidence to get the folk singer’s blessing to make a film about his “many lives” (as a subtitle in the film puts it) and characters from his songs entitled, rather fittingly, I’m Not There (2007). I’m sure it was Haynes’ experimental, fragmented approach that probably appealed to Dylan as it maintained his enigmatic reputation.
In a daring move, Haynes cast six actors to play Dylan during six different periods in his life. Marcus Carl Franklin plays a young, Woody Guthrie-esque musician and represents a made-up past Dylan created in interviews. Christian Bale plays Dylan on the cusp of fame and success and also Dylan when he discovered and converted to Christianity. Ben Whishaw plays Dylan as inspired by poet Arthur Rimbaud with dialogue taken during a mid-1960s press conference. Heath Ledger is an actor playing Dylan (sort of) during the period in his life when he had become famous and saw his marriage collapse. Richard Gere plays Dylan during the time he made Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973). Cate Blanchett plays the most recognizable incarnation of Dylan circa Dont Look Back (1967) and his 1965-66 tour with The Band. It’s an ambitious conceit that blows apart any traditional notions of the biopic.
Instead, Haynes has created a complex, layered mosaic that is Dylan’s life and career. He jumps back and forth in time employing different film stocks depending on how the folk singer was depicted at that point in his life. None of the characters are named Dylan but they all represent him or what he would have us believe as him. Haynes inserts actual newsreel footage from the 1960s much like Oliver Stone did in JFK (1991) and Nixon (1995) to add yet another layer and to put Dylan’s life in context with the decade – how it influenced him and how he, in turn, influenced the times. For example, the film depicts Dylan’s infamous appearance at the Newport Folk Festival where he went electric and how it pissed off many folk music purists. The film also shows how the media tried to pigeonhole him but he wouldn’t have it, giving increasingly oblique and cryptic answers to the same tired questions.
The star-studded cast does an excellent job portraying various incarnations of Bob Dylan with Bale and especially Blanchett embodying the musician. Haynes has reinvented the musician biopic by manipulating its conventions to suit its subject instead of the other way around which is what has always been done in the past. I’m Not There invites us into Dylan’s brain and has look at the world through his eyes much like Michael Mann’s Ali (2001) tried to show ten years in the life of boxer Muhammad Ali. We also see how Dylan is perceived by the media and his fans. Because Haynes is pushing the genre to its extremes the film is quite hard to follow at times as we jump all over the place in time and are confronted by various takes on Dylan. However, I think it is a film that will only improves on subsequent viewings as what Haynes is doing becomes more apparent and understood.
On the first disc there is “An Introduction” featuring four text essays that help one get a handle on the film. “Who’s Not There: Six Faces of Dylan” explains who each of the six Dylans the actors are playing and what they represent. “Tangled Up in Clues” claims that Haynes’ film is “an homage to 1960s art films.” It does an excellent job of breaking the film down to its basic elements. “Decoding an Entertaining Enigma” examines each incarnation of Dylan in the film. “Notes on I’m Not There” is written by noted critic Greil Marcus and features a solid analysis of the film.
There is an audio commentary by co-writer/director Todd Haynes. He talks about how he rediscovered Bob Dylan’s music and his life via biographies. Haynes talks about how he pitched the project to Dylan and how he was inspired by the cinema of the 1960s because that was the time period where most of the film was set. Haynes certainly knows his Dylan history and does a great job analyzing his film and talking about the changes he made while shooting it. This is an engaging and informative track.
There is also an option to have the lyrics to the songs that appear on-screen.
The second disc features two theatrical trailers and an unreleased flash card trailer done in the style of the famous “Subterranean Homesick Blues” video with the cast.
There are “Audition Tapes” for Marcus Carl Franklin and Ben Whishaw. They both do a good job embodying the character they would eventually play.
Also included are two deleted scenes with Blanchett as Dylan messed up on drugs and another with Gere as Dylan during his western phase.
There are four alternate/extended scenes that provide an interesting, different take on these scenes.
An “Outtakes” gag reel features the cast and crew goofing around.
“A Tribute to Heath Ledger” features a montage of clips of the late actor in character and on the set. It is a sobering reminder of what a great talent has been lost with his tragic death.
“The Red Carpet Premiere” in November 2007 features footage of Haynes and his cast walking the red carpet and interacting with the press.
“Making the Soundtrack” examines how they mixed covers of Dylan’s songs with original versions by the man himself. Haynes enlisted Sonic Youth’s Lee Ronaldo to supervise some of the music and musicians like John Doe recorded their versions of key songs in the film. Assembling the soundtrack was as unconventional as the film itself.
“Conversation with Todd Haynes” features the director going in detail about his film explaining the title, the origins of the project, and so on. It’s a nice compliment to his commentary track even if there is some overlap.
“Dylanography” includes the one-page proposal Haynes sent Dylan in order to get his approval for the film. There is also a chronology of the musician’s life, a discography of his extensive output, books he’s written, pages from the director’s notebook, and stills of the various characters.