Review: I’m Not There – The two faces of Dylan lore

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The KEXP blog is not a typical place to find film reviews, but the film I aim to review is not a typical film. In fact, it has taken me a week and half to sufficiently assemble my thoughts to the point I feel comfortable talking about it. This is actually a fitting representation of the movie itself. I’m Not There dips and dives in and out of so many different aspects of Dylan-topia you can’t help but just hang of for the ride and hope for comprehension later.

Anticipation and expectation has been high since the first mention of director Todd Haynes use of six different characters to represent one man. “How can this movie not be good,” I exclaimed to a friend during a discussion before I had seen it and after he had. “It’s about Dylan, Cate Blanchett plays him in one part and they raved about it at Cannes.”

Clearly I was entering the theater with high hopes and zero objectivity (not the kind of thing you like to hear from a critic). This movie was supposed to provide many if not all the answers to the mystery behind the guy that brought insight into some of America’s biggest mysteries.

However, within the first 20 minutes of the two hour and 15 minute epic growing concern was taking over. It seemed as if Haynes was just rehashing old footage/song lyrics/quotes from previous documentaries (Don’t Look Back and No Direction Home), books and Dylan songs. I wasn’t getting anything new from this movie, not even a re-interpretation.

As the film went on, my grievances began to wane. The actors representing the different characters behind the legend opened a door of appreciation for me. Blanchett as the martyred rock star Dylan was so spot on, it was a bit eerie. Meanwhile, Heath Ledger as Dylan-the-actor and Charlotte Gainsbourg as his neglected wife (one part Sara Dylan and one part Suze Rotolo) brought real emotional attachment to the characters. Even Richard Gere and his hide-out cowboy Dylan was great. The acting was beginning to give the old verbage and quotes new life by putting them in imaginative settings.

The next thing that hit me was the cinematography of each section of the movie. As it’s broken down into each character’s surrounding, the way the film looks changes as well, and for the good. Blanchett’s background is shot in black and white hinting at the Don’t Look Back era. Ledger’s scenes all had a classic 70’s feel to them and the old west, Gere and his Billy The Kid character lived in, was quite surreal. The different styles of filming gave the movie an innovative and creative quality.

Still, with fantastic acting and eye candy footage, Haynes was still missing something. He wasn’t driving home any kind of main theme or tying each of the character threads together. Confusion flourished as each story line developed into it’s own but never ran true throughout the whole film. There were a few scenes during Gere’s storyline which hinted at cohesion but never brought it all around, so to say. At one point the same lambasting journalist to who pokes at Blanchett’s character reappears as Pat Garrett to Gere’s Billy the Kid. Gere’s Billy also hops a train towards the end of his story line and transitions into the Woody character who appeared earlier in the film played by Marcus Carl Franklin, alluding to some kind of cyclical being. Nevertheless, neither of these really tied the whole piece together.

I left the theater with a stir of mixed feelings. There were so many things I loved about it, but nothing that settled all the fun bits. Haynes had frustrated me by dangling all these intricate characters with their sensitive stories in front of me, but never let me take the big bite and get hooked. As I said, a week and a half went by till I came to a realization. How I felt about this Dylan movie was exactly what Haynes wanted. He perpetuates the notion that Dylan is no one but who he portrays. The myth that we Dylan consumers want to deconstruct can only be broken down into the different people he played in real life. The real Dylan is just manifestations of who he pictured himself as.

After this realization the film became much easier to love and enjoy. This was a film that showed you the world of Dylan from the characters he was. It’s really just a gateway into discovering what Dylan did, not who he was. That is something that only he knows (or doesn’t for that matter), and all we can do is sit back and soak it up. I will watch this movie again and again, but not because I believe there is some kind of insight into the man, but that there is some kind of insight into the human search for self discovery.

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The accompanying soundtrack released for the film is another story. There is nothing difficult to dismantle about two discs full of classic tunes re-done by some of music’s best acts. Except for the fact that most folks usually find tribute type albums of this sort, a bore. The I’m Not There soundtrack is no bore, nor a typical tribute album.

I found it to be a pleasurable and alternate means of looking into the music being covered as well as the influence Zimmy has had on some of my favorite musicians. The songs issued on the soundtrack are gems from the ever expanding recorded history of Dylan.

Unless you’re a Dylan fanatic, not all are from his “well-known” catalog, but all sit happily in his “well-loved” catalog. Of The Frames fame and other popular music film from 2007, Once, Glen Hansard & Marketa Irglova brought “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” to my attention with a rollicking, acoustic boot-stomping rhythm. Upon further investigation I found this tune to be a favorite covered on the Gram Parsons-controlled Byrds album, Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Sufjan Stevens version of “Ring Them Bells” is another song that created a need to refresh my Dylan-ography.

Now some of the re-workings are easy recipes for pure goodness. The musician/song combination’s of Cat Power doing “Stuck Inside of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again,” Ramlin’ Jack Elliot on “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” and Jeff Tweedy’s edition of “Simple Twist of Fate” are simply no-brainers. Conversely, some might induce a cringe at reading the names of the artists next to classic Dylan numbers. Surprise, surprise. Jack Johnson’s combo of “Mama You’ve Been On My Mind/A Fraction of Last Thoughts On Woody Guthrie” and “Highway 61 Revisited” by Karen O and The Million Dollar Bashers turn out fantastically inventive. Charlotte Gainsbourg and “Just Like A Woman” seemed a bit more fitting, but still a revelation in adaptation.

With 36 tracks total there is bound to be some shortcomings here. Stephen Malkmus and The Million Dollar Bashers have held a little too close to the original on “Maggie’s Farm.” Roger McGuinn falls slightly flat on “One More Cup of Coffee,” but backing band Calexico keep the song stylish. Also, opener “All Along The Watchtower” by Eddie Vedder and the ever pervasive Million Dollar Bashers unfortunately gets the skip button most times through. While these may not be great translations, per say, they are still good.

I did manage to listen to the album before I saw the film and several of these coverings came around to shine after reminiscing on some classic scenes from the movie. Jim James and Calexico build on a sorrow wrought clip with “Goin’ To Acapulco.” The classic Richie Havens front-porch guitar style on “Tombstone Blues” is heartening, and “Ballad Of A Thin Man” was given some more meaning in the hands of Stephen Malkmus and The Million Dollar Bashers against some first-class editing during a scene where a British journalist becomes slightly self critical after confronting the electric mid-‘60s Dylan. By the way The Million Dollar Bashers are comprised of guitarist Lee Ranaldo and drummer Steve Shelley of Sonic Youth, Tom Verlaine, Dylan’s regular bassist Tony Garnier, Wilco guitarist Nels Cline, guitarist Smokey Hormel, and organist John Medeski

Considering some great scene scores, the soundtrack still remains a separate entity from the film altogether, partly because many of these songs weren’t actually in the film. Thanks to the recruiting efforts of Haynes and music supervisors, Randall Poster and Jim Dunbar, elements of classic and modern have been brought together in a way that the casual Dylan-ite and the know-it-all fanatic can share a commonality amongst their shelves of rock: the I’m Not There soundtrack.

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