Reel Talk

The Trippy Fun of I’m Not There

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The biopic is a hard film genre to really love, especially about musicians. They’re usually enjoyable enough, full of drama and soundtracks of their best known songs. But for the most part, musician biopics tend to be essentially the same. You’re going to see the musician at an early age, a rocky start before launching them into a superstar, and then some sort of personal tragedy or problem (usually drugs) will cut them out of the limelight and they will either die or bring themselves back into the light for a heartwarming and inspirational ending. And it’s not quite Hollywood’s fault for making these movies all the same, this is just the typical story of fame. The rise and fall of an icon is usually rather similar, so these movies tend to be rather similar. And while these movies can normally be pretty good and garner some Oscar buzz, they usually tend to get forgotten when the next big one comes out. I enjoyed movies like Ray or Walk the Line, but they would never come close to being on a list like this. For a biopic movie to really succeed, you need to do something different, even if the base story is similar to all the others. And that’s why I love I’m Not There. This movie is certainly different, it’s unlike any biopic I’ve ever seen before. Director Todd Haynes made some very bold decisions with this movie, making it so strange and bizarre, that it fits the subject matter to a tee.

I love Bob Dylan, he’s my favorite musician of all time, and when I first heard that they were going to make a movie about his life, I was a little concerned. I didn’t want his life to be tossed out in just another musician biopic, get an actor who thinks of the movie as Oscar Bait, and then have the movie be forgotten just a year after its release. But then I started hearing about the casting choices, and saw the trailer, and became instantly intrigued. The trailer puts it best in my opinion, this movie is about the “lives of Bob Dylan.” For a man whose gone through so many changes and transformations in his career, they decided to instead of sticking to the traditional biopic formula, they would instead create six different characters, all representing a different form of Bob, and tell different parts of his story. The movie still contains a lot of the elements I mentioned about biopic films, but it shows them in such a different way that this movie becomes something different all together, a biopic unlike anything I’d ever seen before. I think it’s great that this movie about Bob Dylan, doesn’t have a character named Bob Dylan. Instead we get six different characters, all playing different people, who are embodimens of aspects of Dylan’s life. It’s almost like this movie takes place in an alternate dimension where Bob Dylan doesn’t exist, and these six people are who filled that void.

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The narration at the beginning by Kris Kristofferson describes them as the Poet (Ben Wishaw), the Prophet (Christian Bale), the Outlaw (Richard Gere), the Fake (Marcus Carl Franklin), and The Star of Electricity (Heath Ledger). Oddly, the other character, of superstar electric-folk Dylan (Cate Blanchett) doesn’t get a special name. And it’s with these characters and their own self contained stories that we flesh out the life, or lives of Bob Dylan. 

The first story that begins is that of the Fake, a young black kid who calls himself Woody Guthrie. Woody represents Dylan’s early career, when he was first trying to get fame in New York. Dylan lied about his name and age, creating his own character that he played, so that people would take him seriously. Just about everything in Dylan’s early career was faked, and the film takes it to an extreme, you that there isn’t much to Dylan’s life that can be completely trusted, and as a result, even this film may not be the truth. I really like that aspect of the movie, that it admits itself this may not be the truth, take what you will from it. Woody goes around, trying to avoid the truth of his life and become his creation, until his story is brought to a close when he goes to see his dying hero, the real Woody Guthrie, just as Dylan did in reality.

Soon after we’re introduced to the Poet, a man called Arthur Rimbaud, named after the French poet. His scenes pop up every now and then in the movie, almost acting as a narrator of the movie. He’s always sitting at a table, as if he’s being interviewed by someone, tossing out various quotes and saying of a quasi-philosophical and poetic nature. He’s the poet in Dylan, saying some wonderfully clever things, that doesn’t really mean all that much when you get down to it, but still make you think.

We then get the Prophet, a man named Jack Rollins, who pulls double duty on Dylan’s life. From Rollins we see the struggling folk star, the voice of the generation. Rollins is the acclaimed writer of some of the most powerful folk songs of his time, and is revered as the leader of a movement. But he hates the pressure that his fans put on him, and tries to distance himself from his own message, eventually fading away from the public limelight. His story then jumps later in time, with Rollins giving up with folk hero status, and becoming a born again preacher, giving himself over to religion. In reality, Dylan was quickly made the so called voice of a generation, and hated the responsibility. He actually did shy away from the public, trying to hide himself from the responsibility of telling everyone what the thought about everything. And in the late seventies and early eighties, Dylan did take a brief detour into gospel music, becoming a devout Christian. 

We then get the Star of Electricity, a young James Dean-esque actor called Robbie Clark. Robbie’s breakout role was oddly enough, a biopic of Jack Rollins. He becomes famous for playing this counter culture icon, which then causes him to become one himself. This story really delves into the personal side of Dylan’s life, showing the problems he had with family. Robbie falls in love with a French artist when they’re both struggling unknowns. But when fame is thrust upon Robbie, he starts become detached with her, becoming more and more difficult and unfaithful. Robbie begins to resent his fame, and does his best to hide from the paparazzi and his fans, trying to hole himself up. Eventually, his marriage and relationship with his kids crumble around him, leaving him alone. Dylan has never had the best luck with relationships, and this segment really shows the pain that he went through as his fame destroyed his normal life.

At this point, the movie gives us the surreal part of the story. Cate Blanchett gives an amazing performance as Jude Quinn, showing Dylan as he was in his electric-folk superstar phase. Quinn is a rambling, drug addled musician who recently switched from folk music to electric rock, a move that alienated all of his fans. He’s in the midst of a tour of England, and has to face his scorn fans and really find himself. He drifts through the counter culture life of England, trying to survive the onslaught of tour dates that his managers are forcing him to complete, and keep his sanity in general. He drives around with Allen Ginsburg, and fights with a pompous BBC reporter who has nothing but contempt for him. This segment really shows the conflict Dylan had when he “went electric,” and the crisis that this brought upon him.

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And finally we get the Outlaw, oddly enough a still alive Billy The Kid. In this segment, Billy apparently survived his mythic assassinaiton, and has been lying low. He’s trying to be invisible, have no one remember who he is. But when trouble comes to the small town that he’s called home, and has no choice but to drag himself out of his self imposed exile, and try to fight for the town, becoming a symbol of hope once again in these people’s lives. When Dylan got older, he began to occasionally leave the limelight, trying his best to have people forget about him, but inevitably, he was drawn back out with another comeback, unable to resist the draw of the public.

I love how inventive this movie is. The idea of making a biopic a series of episodes itself would be a new idea, but Todd Haynes then added the extra layer of making them all different characters. They’re all similar, but different, really giving a feel for the different lives Dylan has lived. He’s gone through some drastic career and life changes, to the point where you can put in different albums of his from different times, and you almost couldn’t tell that it’s the same artist. He’s constantly changing, adapting to the times and creating something different, and this movie really shows that in a fascinating way. You get to see all of these characters struggle, and in the end, come to some sort of positive ending. Life can be weird and difficult, no matter who or where you are, but in the end, if you fight hard enough, you can come out of it. I really love that each character has some sort of conflict they must beat. Usually in these biopic movies they pick one major obstacle in the artists life, but this movie was able to get several, showing that life isn’t one giant problem you must beat, but several smaller ones, when you reach you happy ending, there’s another problem just on the horizon. This movie really shines at showing that these characters are different, yet similar. Everyone goes through these type of things, and we all have to just make it through.

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The acting in this movie is tremendous. Everyone does a great job, and those who try the Dylan voice manage to do it respectfully, no easy task since Dylan’s unique way of talking and singing is one of the easiest impersonations to go too far with, becoming cartoonish. But the real draw for me is Cate Blanchett. I personally expected her to win Best Supporting Actress, because she pulled off an amazing portrayal of the Dylan most people are familiar with. His frizzy hair, black sunglasses, and drawling, rambling way of speaking were spot on. Every scene with Blanchett was amazing, she really got the performance down perfectly, and really bring Dylan’s rebellious yet tormented years to life.

One that thing to mention is the music in this movie. As expected, the soundtrack of the movie is loaded with classic Dylan songs from throughout his career. They managed to find just the right song from his enormous library for the right scenes, giving the movie an amazing sound. But the soundtrack for the movie that was available to buy is one of the best I’ve ever heard. Keeping with the theme of the movie, only one song on the massive double album is actually sung by Bob. The rest are covers by extremely eclectic artists, giving you the feeling that all of these artists jumped at the idea of being on this album. Dylan’s life and music can be reimaigned so many different, strange ways. There’s always a different way to look at things. And that sums the movie up pretty well. 

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I’m Not There was directed by Todd Haynes, written by Todd Haynes and Oren Moverman, and distributed by the Weinstein Company

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