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Haynes' adventurous biopic of Bob Dylan, which uses six actors of both
sexes and several races ranging in ages from 11 to 50, is both
exhausting and fun to watch. It's also hard to describe. But let's
start with those six and the characters or facets they portray. Arthur
(Ben Whishaw) is the Dylan who incarnated Rimbaud and serves as a kind
of narrator whom we see smoking and giving ironic answers to some kind
of inquisition sporadically throughout the film. Woody (the wonderful
young Marcus Carl Franklin, an amazing a singer and actor) is a
precocious rail-hopper with a guitar (labeled like the real Woody's,
THIS MACHINE KILLS FASCISTS) and tall tales that start with his claim
that he's Woody Guthrie. Woody's scenes show him rescued by a black
family and a white family and performing with country black musicals.
He represents the early shape-shifting Dylan in search of an identity
and telling a lot of lies along the way.
Jack (Christian Bale) is the Dylan who became a hit in Greenwich Village and went into the South and sang "The Ballad of Hattie Carroll" and other protest "folk songs,"the high-profile "political" Dylan who spearheaded a movement and became famous with his brilliant early LP's. But Jack doesn't want to be typecast and "betrays" his adoring public and his lover and folksinging champion Alice (Julianne Moore), a Joan Baez stand-in seen in later "interviews." Jack disappears and his place is taken by Robbie (Heath Ledger), a young actor in New York who becomes famous for starring in a 1965 film depicting the vanished Jack. Robbie meets Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) in a Village coffee shop and falls in love, and a turbulent ten-year marriage follows, winding up painfully at the time of the Vietnam War's end.
If Jack represents the cast-off early style and Robbie represents Dylan's family life, Jude (Cate Blanchett) is Dylan the artist, quintessentially as seen in the mid-to-late Sixties when he toured England (an event notably chronicled by two Leacock-Pennebaker documentaries)and shocked his audiences, some of whose members felt betrayed and shouted "Judas!", when he shifted from solo guitar and harmonica to more personal songs with loud rock accompaniment. Jude's segments are partly borrowed from Pennebaker, but largely consist of gorgeous black and white scenes deliberately and "churlishly" (Haynes' word) imitative of Fellini's 8 ½.
Jude's new style is admired by Allen Ginsberg (David Cross) and underground groupie Coco Rivington (Michelle Williams) and he becomes internationally famous. But he continues to be misunderstood by the protest music old guard and conventional journalists like the British TV host Mr. Jones (Bruce Greenwood)who's incorporated into a music video for Highway 61 Revisited's "Ballad of a Thin Man": ". . .something is happening here /And you don't know what it is, do you, Mister Jones." . .
Jude and Arthur articulate the early Dylan's challenging, ironic stance to the public, but Jude is exhausted on tour and his nihilism leads him to an existential crisis.
He's reborn symbolically in Pastor John (Christian Bale again), who's moved to Stockton twenty years later and become a born-again preacher, singing his own gospel songs. Finally the last version of Dylan appears in Billy (Richard Gere), in full retreat from the worldtill threats to destroy his town of Riddle cause him to enter public life again. This sequence evokes a Sixties historical western in which Pat Garrett (Bruce Greenwood) is a character.
This is only the barest outline of the two-and-a-quarter-hour film, in which various "Dylan's" are woven in and out. Maybe the reason why I found Woody's sequences delightful and Billy's colorful but wearying has to do with the latter's coming two hours later. But Gere and his sequences evoke Dylan less well and are puzzling to interpret. Blanchett's in contrast are, of course, the most conventionally straightforward. She's the only one who successfully mimics the physical appearance and the speaking voice of the artist (unless Whishaw does a better job with the voice). But Blanchett's mimicry is intentionally undercut (and the biopic conventionality of films like Ray avoided) by having Jude be played by a womanwhich was planned by Haynes in his screenplay before he even chose his actor.
The method Haynes has chosen avoids cliché. This is still a biopic, but it's a sophisticated one; and the fractured portrait is well justified by the nature of its subject. Dylan has always been a shape-shifter; some of his permutations were left out, such as the period of the orthodox Jew and JDL supporter. But it's intelligent to see Dylan the man, the husband, the artist, the political being, and the religious being as completely separate entities because no simple biopic sequence can really dramatize the complexity of such an artist and such a protean existence. Haynes' film makes you think about biography itself, as well as giving imaginative shape to aspects of Bob Dylan no non-fiction account can really provide.
Maybe it's the daringly experimental methodology that led Dylan himself, approached through his eldest son Jesse,to grant Haynes both the musical rights and the biographical rights. Haynes has chosen a multifaceted and original way of using Dylan's songs. Only Franklin actually performs them with his own voice. Otherwise the soundtrack mixes original Dylan recordings with existing covers, new ones by people as widely various as Ritche Havens, Iggy Pop, John Doe and Sonic Youth, and other music, including, appropriately for the 8 ½- esquire sequences, Nino Rota. There is a voice-over narration by Kris Kristofferson. Haynes worked on the screenplay for years, and then collaborated with Oren Moverman.
Not for mainstream audiences or be prime Oscar bait, but a challenging, fun watch.
Shown in the press screenings of the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center 2007. Haynes was present fort a Q&A afterward with J. Hoberman of the Village Voice, which revealed that the director is an intelligent and articulate man and who knows his Dylan.
'I'm Not There' Todd Haynes, 2007
The biopicture can be a difficult kind of picture to picture. Even more so when you have no intention of divulging the name of your subject. And dare I say it, yet further still when you insist on casting at least six people to play the lead role. This is the charm behind 'I'm Not There' - Todd Haynes' tribute to the life and times of Bob Dylan that recently lit up the Festival di Venezia. Biographic cinema is a frightening beast, some films are stuffed full of information while others attempt to exactly mimic their respective studies. There are however very few that play with their quarry, flitting from fact to fiction so quickly that in the end we know not what to believe. In reality, the life of Robert Dylan was exactly this mess of lies, grandeur, childishness, arrogance and genius. One of almost unbelievable occurrences that when whispered about long enough become carefully set in stone. Todd Haynes understands this fact and so goes after it with a stance of almost awed respect, yet as an onlooker - crafting a mockumentary that is so rich in character and love and attention to detail that we can't help but be drawn in. I've heard early reviews stating that 'I'm Not There' will make the Dylanites gush and the normal folk sleep. The fact is this couldn't be further from the truth - being a person that is indifferent to the music appears only to heighten the enjoyment.
Somewhere during the last five years, writer/director Haynes came upon the slightly trampled idea of conducting a Bob Dylan biography movie. Nothing original in itself, though with one idea to make it slightly different from what the likes of Scorsese had attempted a few years back. He would use multiple actors for 'I'm Not There', six in fact - to portray the iconic figure. And what an inspired decision it is. The unrecognisable and slender form of Cate Blanchett steals the show, melting into her eye-rubbing, nose-twitching, lip-conscious take that is only too quick to lash those in proximity with a witful tongue. Almost as idiosyncratic is Ben Whishaw's sarcasm-laced drawling poet Dylan. Who prompts guffaws when tiresomely declaring his name as "R-I-M-B-A-U-D" to an arresting police officer. The eccentric duo are displayed primarily in overexposed black and white, and complementing this in Technicolor are the equally impressive Christian Bale and Heath Ledger. Whom fall upon the unwashed, shaded rocker Dylan with equally strong performances. To complete the musical sextuplets are Richard Gere and the delightful Marcus Carl Franklin, these two are the tall-tale Dylans. A jaded western cowboy and a blues-singing black child respectively, both adding another more fictional dimension to the character. They are almost opposite ends of the Dylan-spectrum, and are introduced at the opening and closing of the film to further embolden this point. Franklin in particular impresses, tugging at the humor strings again with his dry recollections of a life on the musical road.
The host of supporting actors/actresses in 'I'm Not There' do well to further the films themes. With Charlotte Gainsbourg and Julianne Moore taking up the posts of drama and documentary accordingly. Each plays one of the two most important women in Dylan's life, with Gainsbourg (Sara Lownds) cooking up a memorable on-screen chemistry - or lack thereof - with Ledger's character. She is instantly attractive across a smoky diner, yet this attraction soon wanes as romance stagnates. Never-ending tours take their toll and the once exciteful, scooter-riding relationship crumbles. Moore's character (Joan Baez) is more reflective, playing her whole part as if interviewed enthusiastically many years on. My only problem is with the later segments of 'I'm Not There'. Particularly those featuring the bearded and bespectacled Richard Gere. Many know the story of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, and this part is essential when regarding the plot. My qualm is that it feels almost tacked on as an afterthought, trotting outside the clear themed borders that the film has laid out so meticulously. This only adds to the ballooning length of the film, and so did begin to drag during these Wild-western plot points. That said, this hardly takes away from an experience that is both visceral and enlightening. Comedic and pensive. Wild and tender. A life, in all possible senses of the word.
This film amazed me. One reason it worked for me is because it's
drenched in Dylan's music. I wasn't expecting that. Most of the time,
it's Dylan's voice when 'Blind Willie McTell' or 'Moonshiner' or 'Idiot
Wind' (the slow, acoustic version) suddenly erupt on the sound track to
huge emotional effect. Other times instrumental teasers from 'Man In
The Long Black Coat' or 'Nashville Skyline Rag' are planted in the mix
like fragments of dreams you can't quite focus on. All the pre-release
publicity had revolved around Cate Blanchett is girl Dylan! and Marcus
Carl Franklin is African American boy Dylan! but the film itself
unfolds like a kaleidoscopic dream where the pieces never quite meet. A
bit like me and all my friends scratching our heads in the 1960s and
1970s and earnestly wondering how John Wesley Harding related to Blonde
On Blonde, or how Slow Train Coming related to Blood On the Tracks.
Well they don't. In "Chronicles, Volume One" Dylan dwells on the moment
when he stumbled across Rimbaud's declaration "Je est un autre" which
translates into English: "I is someone else". Dylan writes: "When I
read those words the bells went off. It made perfect sense. I wish
someone would have mentioned it to me earlier." That insight has
sustained Dylan thru all his multiple personalities, finger pointing
folkie, rock & roll rebel, Nashville good ol' boy (Oh me oh my, love
that country pie), tormented lover, Born Again Christian. When he
performed on his first album, aged 21, he was trying to summon up the
voice of a 60 year old blues singer.
That insight sustains this movie because Haynes and his team have been able to match a visual style to each image of Dylan's life. From the burnt out black & white textures of 'Fellini's 8½' which seem to lock Blanchett inside an amphetamine-fuelled bubble of superstardom to the mellow colour photography of 'McCabe and Mrs Miller' which frames Richard Gere. I was surprised by the long Gere sequence. He seems like a recluse in the backwoods but all these strange characters and circus animals roll past, capturing the mood of those bizarre Basement Tape songs: 'Please Mrs. Henry', 'Open The Door Homer'. It seems to be set in a realm that Greil Marcus called 'The Old, Weird America'. And there's a visionary flash where Gere peers into the landscape and has a glimpse of Vietnam. It made perfect sense to me. There's a moment in the Sing Out! interview with Dylan in 1968 (when Dylan was secluded in Woodstock) when Happy Traum asked Dylan "Why don't you speak out against the Vietnam War?" and Dylan replied: "That really doesn't exist. It's not for or against the war. I'm speaking of a certain painter and he's all for the war. He's ready to go over there himself. And I can comprehend him. People just have their own views. Anyway, how do you know that I'm not, as you say, for the war?" When Charlotte Gainsbourg (who seems to be playing a composite of Suze Rotolo and Sara Dylan) suddenly drops the divorce settlement into Heath Ledger's lap, the film cuts to newsreel shots of Henry Kissinger and Lo Duc Tho signing the Vietnam ceasefire accords in Paris. This film isn't a biopic, this film works in a free association surreal way, like Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again, or Highlands works. It's true to the spirit of one of Dylan's greatest songs, a song which goes places where no words can go, a song which gives this film its title: "Now, when I keep believing I was born to love her /But she knows that the kingdom waits so high above her /And I run but I race, but it's not too fast or slow /But I don't deceive her. I'm not there, I'm gone...
I just saw I'm Not There at the Telluride Film Festival. It is AMAZING. The performances are nothing short of spectacular. Cate Blanchett really nails the role except that her voice obviously can't hit the same bass as the real Bob Dylan. She does, however, look creepily like Dylan in many instances and really gets the mannerisms right. Christian Bale is another standout. It should be mentioned that all of the performances are really top-notch, nobody falls short. The music was fantastic, too (obviously). My one complaint would be that the film goes on a bit longer than it probably needs to but not enough to affect my overall score. I floated out of the theater after seeing this one. It is definitely essential for all Dylan fans. Many of the people I saw the film with were not very familiar with Dylan's life or music but they said they enjoyed it as well. See it the day it comes out!
Saw this at the Toronto Film Festival. I really liked it, although
maybe the Richard Gere scenes are the one's to skip, though it's not
really his fault. Cate Blanchett is getting a lot of buzz for her
performance, and she deserves it. The actors are all playing versions
of Dylan, though their characters have different names. Blanchett plays
an incarnation of Dylan that would be right around the time of "Don't
Although I think Todd Haynes is mostly successful here, I fear that this will be a film that will really interest people who already know about Bob Dylan, and that it will sort of fly over the heads of everyone else. A good movie, and a nice place to start if you're a young movie lover who wants to expand and see something less conventional.
I recently watched I'm not there and this movie isn't done in a way that really makes sense sometimes or flows, but after the first 10 minutes you really understand what is happening.This movie has differen't stories from differen't characters that come in and differen't times, and they all have something to do with bob Dylan's life.I thought the movie was gonna show one story at a time, but they show one for like 5 minutes then another one and comeback to it later and sometimes only show a clip for it for a few seconds.This is done in a very art-house style and is for fans of the genre, it isn't abstract crap like some movies but actually has some great scenes that are visually wonderful.Some scenes play like Fellini's 81/2 and this movie feels like a foreign film a lot of the time but the characters speak English.This movie is far from perfect for my taste and I am not a huge Dylan fan but I respect him a lot, the movie pretty much does a good job at pulling you into it and you go for a ride.It's well made and the acting is good all around, don't watch the movie if you don't like art type films or movies that focus on characters and out of place scenes that are put there for a visual purpose.It's a cool flick and I think a lot of people can respect it, it's nice to see something original and not in some movie formula like a lot of Hollywood blockbusters we get these days.
Take all the music, everything you've heard, read, seen in documentaries about Bob and throw them in a blender and pull them out and what you get is "I'm not there" And it's a tasty concoction of a movie that comes off like a dream of everything that's publicly known about his life. Perhaps even Bob himself dreaming about the course of his life. The more you do know about what's out there about Bob the more you'll be able to make the connections with the scenes in this beautiful montage about the poet, songwriter, and musician genius of the last 60 plus years. This is a great film about a very complicated artist who could never be pinned down as representing any one ideology or persona although he seemed to imply many. I suppose Dylan will always be the great enigma and this film only helps to perpetuate it, which is part of what makes it so successful but as we all now know there's no success like failure and failure's no success at all.
I just returned from viewing this film at the New York film festival, and I must say it potentially Haynes' best film to date. By abstracting from a conventional biopic, the film captures the essence of Dylan. The different actors that play Dylan chronicle the metamorphosis of an icon. With an astounding ensemble the performances are flawless. Cate Blanchett in particular, is uncanny as Dylan at the peak of his stardom, in all likelihood securing a Supporting Actress Oscar nomination. Technically the editing is seamless and Haynes is successfully able to integrate a multitude of styles. In emulating Dylan, the film itself is structured much like a poem. Haynes strings together fact and fiction, the real and surreal and the self and society into a magnificent fabric that illustrates the identity of one of the greatest American icons.
Todd Haynes ("Velvet Goldmine", "Far from Heaven") created a
non-linear, truly original film, that must be seen by every Bob Dylan
lover. Haynes's tapestry is "inspired by the music and lives of Bob
Dylan" - he introduces us to 6 different Dylans: Jack Rollins
(Christian Bale), Woody Guthrie (Marcus Carl Franklin), Jude Quinn
(Cate Blanchett), Robbie Clark (Heath Ledger), Billy the Kid (Richard
Gere) and Arthur Rimbaud (Ben Whishaw), interweaving their stories in a
groundbreaking narrative slightly similar to Todd Solondz's unsettling,
caustic "Palindromes" (2004), in which several very different actresses
(and a boy) play a 13 year-old pregnant girl.
While "Across the Universe" illustrated The Beatles' fantastic songs with simple, adorable characters in a psychedelic rhythm, but with little character development (not that I'm complaining: I absolutely love to see visual masters like Baz Luhrmann or Julie Taymor on fire, since their self-indulgence creates wonderful sensorial pieces), "I'm Not There" is much more complex: it's deeper than conventional biopics ("Ray", "Walk the Line"), and much smarter than exploitative flicks (the atrocious "Factory Girl"). Haynes crafted a unique film that's a feast for the eyes (thanks to cinematographer Ed Lachman, "The Virgin Suicides", who also co-directed the disgusting "Ken Park" with Larry Clark), ears (Dylan's music is always a pie in the sky) and mind (it'll make you admire the man even more, and it doesn't even need to be an ass-kissing biopic to succeed on that).
The cast is heterogeneous and solid, but I think critics are overrating Cate Blanchett for the sheer fact that she's playing a man (which makes things more challenging for her, indeed), when she's not really better than most of the cast; a good performance for sure, but I was much more impressed by Christian Bale and the young revelation Marcus Carl Franklin. Julianne Moore, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Michelle Williams play some important women from Dylan's life, and the always underrated Bruce Greenwood has a small but interesting part. All in all, this isn't a film that will enjoy big commercial success, and it's probably too artsy (although, not in a bad way) to get the Academy's top prize (even though Blanchett's performance and, maybe, Haynes's magnificent directing/writing, will probably be remembered), but it's a real gem for those who want to see something really exciting and original. As for myself, I'm thankful to Haynes and his audacious, faithful producer Christine Vachon (this woman rocks, and in a perfect world, she'd have all the money that a certain Jerry Bruckheimer possesses), who always dare to blow us away - something rare, these days. Fascinating. 10/10.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Todd Haynes' I'm Not There is a genuinely visionary work of art;
ostensibly a biopic of Bob Dylan, Haynes has actually made seven
different short movies, each with its own precise cinematic language,
which have then been carefully interwoven to create a whole that is
greater than the sum of its parts.
I won't bother rehashing the film's central conceit and plot, which have been extensively commented on elsewhere. I will say that the misguided reviewers who praise the Cate Blanchett portion of the movie above the others (wonderful though her performance is) are missing Haynes' point entirely. Each of the different segments of I'm Not There inform and comment on each other in ways that are sometimes direct and sometimes oblique but there is ALWAYS a logic to the overall structure.
For someone to say that they would have preferred a movie entirely about Blanchett as Dylan is tantamount to saying that they would have preferred a more traditional Dylan biopic in the manner of Ray or Walk the Line. This traditional biopic formula is precisely what Haynes is trying to explode and the Richard Gere segment of the film (the most critically maligned portion of the movie by far) is where he succeeds in his strategy the most!
Despite what many critics have written, it is not Christian Bale as the born-again Dylan who portrays the oldest incarnation of the Dylan character. It's Richard Gere as Billy the Kid. What Haynes seems to be saying is that Billy the Kid should have been gunned down in his youth by Patt Garrett but has miraculously lived to grow old - just as Dylan should have died in a motorcycle accident in 1966 yet is still on tour today at age 66. (Viewed in this light, each of the younger versions of Dylan can be seen as the memories of Gere's Dylan-as-aging- outlaw.) While it is true that Gere's segment also has ties to the "Basement Tapes"-era Dylan, the fact that Billy is also supposed to represent Dylan in the 21st century is crucial. Without this understanding, the interaction between Billy the Kid and Woody Guthrie (the completion of a circle of life) makes no sense. No wonder critics are flummoxed at the Gere portion of the movie!
This is the kind of film that makes you grateful to be living in the present, when a genuinely daring and extremely talented filmmaker like Haynes can use the resources of Hollywood and bend them to his will to create something that is at once experimental, radical, challenging, funny, moving and, yes, finally, liberating. I'm Not There leaves the rest of contemporary American cinema in the dust.
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