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Movie review by David MalschIn my 2005 review of the Johnny Cash biopic, "Walk the Line", I named two people who I felt symbolized America; two icons that represented the greatness of this country. They were Muhammad Ali and Johnny Cash. I will add another name to that list by including Robert Allen Zimmerman, better known as Bob Dylan. I will admit that I am a late comer to the genius of Bob Dylan but I believe that it’s better to be late than to never arrive at all. I’ve always been aware of Dylan throughout my life but it was through pop culture references more than anything. At the same time, I began paying more attention to the world around me, especially through politics. Because of this new awareness, Dylan came more in focus for me and I couldn’t get enough of him.
Bob Dylan is many things--author, musician, poet. He has been a voice of the people for over 40 years now and shows no signs of going away. His early work dealt with politics and social commentary. He’s been anti-war and pro-civil rights his entire life and has never backed down from those stances. He’s been a chameleon as an artist much the same David Bowie has been, only not as visually over-the-top as Ziggy Stardust. Dylan has been many people in his life, but he never, ever stopped being himself.
"I’m Not There" is a film about the life of Bob Dylan but not in the usual cinematic flare of other biopics like "Ray" or "Walk the Line." "I’m Not There" has no narrative and features the life of Dylan through six different actors playing him at different stages of his life. It is a daring and bold attempt by writer/director Todd Haynes, who also isn’t an easy artist to second-guess.
The film begins with young Dylan, an 11-year old black boy (Marcus Carl Franklin) who travels the country from an empty train car and calls himself Woody Guthrie in 1959. He is seeing America for the first time and talking and singing about it to anyone who will listen. From there we meet Jack (Christian Bale), the Greenwich Village folkie who sings protest songs and begins to make a name for himself. The film switches to a documentary/mockumentary format with Jack and shows where he’s come from and, more importantly, where he’s going. Through fake archival footage to in-depth interviews, we get to know a little about the man behind the cause, especially through Alice (Julianne Moore), as Jack’s singing partner and lover, a la Joan Baez.
From there we meet Robbie (Heath Ledger), a Dylan-esque actor starring and promoting a film called Grain of Sand that features an actor deeply in-tune with who Dylan was and the people he sang about. Robbie is a self-centered actor whose married to an artist named Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and has two children at home that he never sees. It is obvious through this chapter of the film to see Dylan’s struggle with his art and celebrity, eventually at the price of his marriage and family.
The best part of the film for me is when Dylan decides to let go of his past and forge ahead into the future by going electric, a move that alienated his most ardent fans. Actress Cate Blanchett plays Jude and is absolutely terrific in the role. It is on stage in 1965 at the Newport Folk Festival when the real Dylan abandoned the acoustic guitar and plugged-in his amp, blowing everyone away (in more ways than one). Haynes makes this segment of the film in a very Federico Fellini/Woody Allen ("Stardust Memories") style and captures a Dylan at a time when he befriends Allen Ginsberg (David Gross), hangs out with the Beatles, and verbally spars with a reporter (Bruce Greenwood) who’s intent on proving Dylan as nothing but a fraud.
The film ends with the character of Billy (Richard Gere), a middle-aged Billy the Kid, whose small town of Riddle is becoming a victim of progress brought on by Pat Garrett. This part of the film becomes a western homage to Sam Peckinpah’s film "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid" in which Dylan played a part. It also reminded me of Robert Altman’s "McCabe and Mrs. Miller." It is my least favorite portion of the film but it is understandable why Haynes included it for the mere aspect of watching an aging Dylan forging into a new millennium. There is also a running segment throughout the film that features a character named Arthur Rimbaud (Ben Whishaw) who appears sporadically to deliver Dylan-esque adages.
I’m Not There is a film for Dylan fans from a Dylan fan and with the full support of the man himself. For people unfamiliar with Dylan, it perhaps won’t mean much, but to those who do love him it is a gift. My only criticism of the film is that at times it feels too long and stretched out. It is a film filled with wonderful music and terrific visuals and the acting is really good by all the many cast members. But it is Cate Blanchett that shines the most and it should garner her an Oscar nomination. Is there any other actress that could flawlessly play both Katherine Hepburn and Bob Dylan? Perhaps another Academy Award would answer that question.
The recent Martin Scorsese documentary about Dylan, "No Direction Home," is a wonderful companion piece to this film. There is also a great soundtrack to this film featuring 2-discs of Dylan covers by artists like the Black Keys, John Doe and Jeff Tweedy along with the wonderful new collection of Dylan hits that has just been released. It is never too late to discover Bob Dylan. We need him as much now as we did 40 years ago.
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