I must admit, I’m no Dylanologist, so I was not particularly upset by director Todd Haynes’ decision to merge Suze Rotolo and Sara Lownds into one character, nor the fact that I’m Not There is far from a biography of Dylan. However, while the film has an excellent score (unsurprisingly, it features lots of Bob Dylan tracks) and features some memorable performances from the six actors representing the singer-songwriter’s different personas, it feels like a simple homage rather than offering any particular insight.
Central to the appeal of I’m Not There is its jigsaw-like composition. The film is not presented as a biopic, and it is not chronological – instead Haynes splices together fragments featuring “Dylans” from different eras, none of them called “Bob Dylan”.
There is Marcus Carl Franklin, who sparkles as a wandering 11 year-old African-American Woody Guthrie devotee. Christian Bale plays two roles – an early ‘60s folk-guitar star Jack Rollins and then a washed-out evangelical preacher in the late ‘70s. Heath Ledger (who died on 22 January) is a late ‘60s actor increasingly alienated from his wife (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg), misogynistic and self-obsessed. Cate Blanchett, like Bale performing an “impression” of Bob Dylan, has the leading part in I’m Not There as “Jude”, the confused Dylan who “betrayed” folk music and his own “principles” in favour of playing electric guitar. The other two actors – Ben Whishaw as poet Arthur Rimbaud, and Richard Gere as a disguised Billy the Kid – put in unremarkable performances, with Gere’s part particularly incoherent and rambling.
The contradictions of Dylan’s political side, and similarly his “turn” to electric, are of some prominence in the film, mainly in Blanchett’s performance. Haynes shows fans disgruntled by Dylan’s behaviour, yet the star is himself puzzled by accusations of hypocrisy. A BBC reporter repeatedly tries to get Blanchett’s “Jude” to admit that he has changed, but “Jude” doesn’t see why his critics are so bothered, why they don’t ask such searching questions of their own political sincerity, or why they won’t appreciate his music for what it is. “Jude” does not take this bad press seriously and, looking up to a statue of Jesus Christ being crucified, he shouts “Do your early stuff, man!” He says that the lyrics don’t change anything anyway.
Although some protest songs can be moving, there is a lot to be said for Haynes’ sceptical attitude to the critics of Dylan’s “turn”. The standard left critique of Dylan for “selling out” or “betrayal” is crude and concedes a lot of ground to the Stalinist notion of “good art” as that which is on-message, rather than what is strong aesthetically. Given that Dylan’s politics were at most a general concern for the oppressed and anti-war sentiment, and he was never an activist, what precisely was there for him to “betray”? Even political people should not just judge culture as if it were a political instrument.
However, apart from Marcus Carl Franklin’s scenes, which are mostly early in the film, and Blanchett’s cultured impression of Dylan, much of the film is soggy and inconsequential. Several performances show Dylan as aloof, and he often appears pretentious rather than pensive, but the film is wary of taking its subject head on and largely aims at veneration. This kid-gloves attitude to the ageing legend appears to echo the widespread acclamation for Dylan’s pisspoor 2006 album Modern Times, despite its homages to such artists as Bing Crosby and Memphis Minnie.
I had eagerly anticipated going to see I’m Not There, but to be truthful it left me a little cold. Yes, Cate Blanchett’s impression of Dylan is eye-catching, but the film has very little new to say about Dylan, and its 2 hour 15 minute running time seemed excessive when so much of the film has no direction.