This is not an easy film to describe. To begin with, it is a biography of Bob Dylan. On the other, hand, it is decidedly no such thing.
No one by the name of Bob Dylan (or Robert Zimmerman, his original name) ever appears in the film. No single character represents Bob Dylan, and his life and work are not presented as facts but taken as inspiration. The introductory text at the outset of the film dodges the issue by stating it is “inspired by the life and work of Bob Dylan.”
The structure of the movie is clearly a little challenging, but I’m Not There is definitely worth the trouble.
The film’s many layers of direct and indirect meaning, while not hard to follow, can get surprisingly complicated. Consider the title, for example. I’m Not There is an apt title, if only because it is literally accurate: Dylan, or a character portraying Dylan, never appears. I’m Not There is also the title of Bob Dylan’s most obscure song, an unfinished recording which was never released; only a few copies exist. The long, melancholy, hard to decipher song turns up in passing as part of the soundtrack, purportedly because director Todd Haynes was able to obtain a copy of a tape which was sent to Neil Young by mistake in 1968. (The complete song is heard only during the closing credits, as a cover by Sonic Youth.)
In I’m Not There, the story of Bob Dylan is told in a non-literal way. The film is not a biography of Dylan, but of his musical output, his fame, his influence on music and culture, the mythology that developed concerning him. The man himself is there, but he is only a minor background character, just as the real man was overshadowed by his own legend. Bob Dylan is present throughout the movie in one sense: he is represented by his music, which makes up most of the film’s soundtrack.The unnamed Bob Dylan is portrayed by six separate characters, each representing an aspect of Dylan’s music, his ever-changing public persona, or his life in general. The characters, and the actors playing them, range from almost factual representations of Dylan, to ludicrously unrelated characters, some of which bear the names of real people. They are:
- A genteel poet named Arthur Rimbaud (Ben Wishaw).
- An itinerant eleven-year-old black boy who calls himself Woody Guthrie (played by talented child actor Marcus Carl Franklin).
- Jack/Pastor John (Christian Bale), a folk musician who converts to Christianity.
- Robby (Heath Ledger), an actor who plays Jack (character #3) in a biographical film.
- Jude Quinn (Cate Blanchett), a folk music hero turned electric pop musician.
- An ageing, isolated Billy the Kid (Richard Gere), trying to retain his privacy and security against encroaching threats.
- A seventh character, based on Chaplin’s ‘Little Tramp,’ was omitted from the final version.
This unusual approach sounds like a mere gimmick, but it is not. Dylan and his music have been so influential, have taken on such a mythic importance, that a straightforward biography of Dylan’s real life would almost be a distraction from the larger truth of his impact and image. Todd Haynes wisely avoids being cornered by literal veracity. Besides, as one critic remarks, Bob Dylan actually was different people; he deliberately gave himself a romantic, but false, back story, manipulated his own public image, and lived through many personas in the course of his career.
The character of Woody, the young, black, guitar-playing vagabond, oddly makes the most sense as a version of Bob Dylan. Early in his career, Dylan related stories of travelling America on a shoestring, seeking out obscure folk and blues musicians and learning from them. It was a romantic but completely false back story, that nevertheless helped establish him in the emerging folk music world. Young Woody is Dylan’s fabricated early self: he rides the rails with no possessions but his guitar, which has the phrase ‘this machine kills fascists’ scrawled on it, as folk singer Woody Guthrie’s own guitar case did. Much like Dylan himself, the boy takes on the name and characteristics of his musical hero (he is shown respectfully visiting the elderly Woody Guthrie in the hospital) and with it a false persona.The recurring character of Arthur Rimbaud has a less direct connection and serves a different purpose. Arthur Rimbaud is the name of an influential nineteenth century French poet, and the character of Arthur seems to function as an apologist for Dylan as an artist. His scenes consist entirely of what seem to be press conferences, in which he dodges questions from unseen sources and tries to defend his (ie Dylan’s) artistic choices, most of the time using actual quotes from Bob Dylan. His interviews are set up to look and sound more like police interrogations: questions about his music are issued in a stern tone of voice, often preceded by phrases like, “Our records indicate…” or “Do you deny…?” and sometimes digressing into questions such as “Are you an illegal alien?” A scene with Rimbaud is often inserted into the film when Dylan’s music comes under fire.
The character which received the most attention from critics was Jude Quinn, representing Dylan’s post-folk, electric guitar years, the attention due partly to the unusual casting of a woman in the role. Cate Blanchett received praise and multiple Best Actress nominations for the performance, which comes closest to a literal depiction of Bob Dylan of all the six characters. Haynes has explained that casting a woman served partly as a distraction from Jude Quinn’s strong resemblance to the real Bob Dylan. Whatever the rationale, the choice was successful, although the entire ensemble cast is well chosen, to the extent that it is hard to praise any one performance over another.
The appearance of Billy the Kid may be the most confusing, and the character’s connection with Dylan requires more a flow of consciousness association than a logical explanation. Dylan had a personal fascination with Billy the Kid. He appeared in, and wrote the soundtrack for, Sam Peckinpah’s 1973 western, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, a revisionist story in which Billy escaped Garrett’s assassination attempt and lived in hiding to an advanced age, like Richard Gere’s character. Dylan’s well known hit, Knocking on Heaven’s Door, is from the movie’s soundtrack. That said, the connection goes beyond Peckinpah’s film.
Billy the Kid remains a legend partly because he died young, just as music legends like Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, or Jim Morrison retained much of their mystique by dying at an early age. An aging Billy the Kid, like a middle-aged Hendrix, is a less romantic figure. In fact, the film begins with the fictional death of a young Bob Dylan-based character – referencing a near-fatal accident Dylan had when his career was on the rise, and the speculation that his musical reputation might have remained more solid had he actually died in the crash. The character of Billy the Kid, placed in a curious amalgam of Wild West and present-day setting, represents the aging Dylan, with all his failures and regrets.In a final and cogent medley of the real and the fictional, the character of Robby, who is an actor playing the part of Jack (ie Bob Dylan) in a movie biography, finds that his fame in that role intrudes on his life to the point of destroying his marriage. The marriage of Robby and his wife, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and the details of their life together, closely parallel Dylan’s personal life and marriage. Strangely, but also appropriately for a film of this kind, the least ‘real’ character (an actor playing an actor playing a fictional version of a fictional version of a real person) comes closest to revealing genuine biographical data about the subject.
Other people important to Dylan’s life appear under false names, such as folk singer Joan Baez, who appears as Alice Fabian (Julianne Moore). At the same time, some significant figures appear under their own names: poet Allen Ginsberg, the Beatles, two members of the early Black Panthers. The storyline is surprisingly easy to follow in spite of this split between fiction and reality; although there are occasional grey areas, as when the boy calling himself Woody is seen playing music on the front porch of a farmhouse with what appear to be two elderly blues musicians, in a scene drawn straight from Dylan’s own contrived adventures. In fact, one of the men is musician Richie Havens, who performed a cover of the Dylan song being played. It is somehow in keeping with the film’s layers of illusion that the other musician, who could easily pass as an authentic country bluesman, is actually Tyrone Benskin, a British-trained actor from Bristol and former Canadian MP.
Dylan’s story is told using a variety of techniques, chosen for their effectiveness in each particular scene. The Billy the Kid scenes, for example, are filmed to resemble a 1960s-70s western, while scenes featuring Pastor Jack’s version of the Christian-converted Dylan look like low-budget television. A brief scene of Dylan meeting with the Beatles in London includes footage which parodies the Beatles’ own lighthearted tour films, like Help! or A Hard Day’s Night. A surreal approach is taken to Dylan’s/Jude Quinn’s first concert using electric instruments: the shock and sense of betrayal of the folk music-loving audience is expressed by showing the band turning to the audience holding machine guns rather than musical instruments, and shooting at them. No technique is gratuitous, each contributes to the story, and the unconfined style keeps the film interesting and unpredictable.
I’m Not There was seven years in the making, largely because of the difficulty in obtaining funding for such an unusual and confusing project. After being rejected by several production companies, taken on and then nervously dropped by another, it was finally accepted by Hollywood movie mogul Harvey Weinstein. Unfortunately, the famously micro-managing Weinstein disputed with Haynes at length, demanding cuts of some of the more eccentric material. In the end, the film was left as Haynes wanted it, and what the audience sees is Todd Haynes’ original vision, a quirky and ingenious masterpiece.
For further viewing:
Safe Director Todd Haynes’ second feature film, released in 1995. Haynes uses the same clever subtlety in a less experimental film than I’m Not There, using a woman’s persistent allergies, and her efforts to find a remedy, as an unusual and eerie commentary on larger matters. Julianne Moore is brilliant as the lead character.
Inside Llewyn Davis is the Coen Brothers’ tribute to the early 1960s American folk music scene, and the popular culture surrounding it, seen through the eyes of one young musician struggling for recognition. The Coens’ special brand of dark comedy takes a back seat on this occasion, as they capture the era and the folk music subculture perfectly.