Here’s a few adjectives that come to mind while watching the new Todd Haynes movie “I’m Not There,” technically a film about the many lives of Bob Dylan: impressionistic, opaque, challenging, hallucinatory, brilliant, maddening, thought-provoking, precocious, moving, momentous, silly, controversial, sad, funny, unpredictable, strange.
That’s just for starters. Haynes, who previously directed “Velvet Goldmine,” a roman a clef about David Bowie and the early ’70s era of glam rock, and “Far From Heaven,” a paean to Douglas Sirk’s Technicolor melodramas of the 1950s (which garnered him a best screenplay Oscar nod) has performed an artistic sleight-of-hand: he didn’t make a film as much as a series of Dylan songs. Every one of the above adjectives could describe Dylan at various times in his five-decade-long career.
To make a film that is as layered as Dylan’s music is reason alone that Haynes should receive an Academy Award nomination for best director. You will almost certainly not find a more complex film this year that is so uniquely the product of a director’s imagination.
While this film will have its fair share of critics — I’m still amazed that Haynes managed to get it made and that Dylan gave him the rights to his catalog — most fair-minded viewers will, at the very least, admit that “I’m Not There” is the most original American film of 2007.
“I’m Not There” is actually six different films each based on a different era of Dylan’s multi-staged career. Each film-within-a-film has a different look, as if it was made by a different director, and each has a different actor playing the main character — none of whom are actually named Dylan in the movie(s). To make matters even more complex, instead of showing each separate film in chronological order, all are jumbled up and edited together like a postmodern novel.
Pretentious? Maybe, if your idea of a great film is “Traffic,” “Crash” or “Titanic” or some other over-hyped one-named film that the Academy likes to bestow nominations and Oscars upon.
Or if you like your films to be straightforward affairs with a beginning, middle and an end that ties everything together in a neat bow. Or if you think that film, as a genre, can’t be as provocative or complex as other artistic mediums such as painting or a novel. If that’s the case than it might be best if you avoid “I’m Not There.”
However, if you want to experience some of the greatest music of the last 40 or so years, see some of the best performances of the year, and see a director at the top of his game, pouring his passion for cinema, into a two-and-a-half-hour slice of celluloid, then you need to see “I’m Not There.” (The title, by the way, comes from an obscure Dylan track originally recorded with The Band during “The Basement Tape” sessions; it’s — thankfully — included on the spectacular 2-CD soundtrack in both its original form and in an amazing cover version by Sonic Youth.)
But back to the film; let’s start with the incomparable Cate Blanchett who plays Dylan during his “gone-electric” phase, when he was a wild-maned, black sunglasses-wearing, Cuban-heeled street poet who plugged in his electric guitar at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival and altered the course of American music.
This sequence is filmed in gorgeous black and white and Haynes deftly invokes not the cinéma-vérité of D.A. Pennebaker’s 1967 documentary “Don’t Look Back,” but Federico Fellini’s 1963 masterpiece “8 ½,” in which a spiritually and artistically bankrupt director searches to reconnect with his muse as he’s hounded by hangers-on and critics. The connection between Fellini’s film and Dylan as an uncompromising artist at his wit’s end, who turns his back on the music industry that insists on having him conform to its vision of him — whether as a pop icon, a singer of protest songs or a folk music hero — might be the image of Dylan that hits closest to the mark.
Christian Bale plays the celebrated protest singer Dylan who realizes that he is becoming the voice of a generation of political partisans — a job that he never signed up for and like a true revolutionary, he rebels against the rebels. Bale also plays the aged rocker turned born again Christian, perhaps the singer’s most bizarre and misunderstood period.
Richard Gere plays the Dylan of “The Basement Tapes” period, who lives in exile in a sort of post-modern Old West (note: this segment of the movie is by far the strangest and, to be honest, Gere hasn’t been this good since 2002’s “Unfaithful”). Heath Ledger plays the cynical and selfish rock star Dylan (in “I’m Not There” he’s actually a film star who has lost touch from his loved ones and his vocation) that roughly coincides with the real-life Dylan of “Blood on the Tracks,” his brilliant 1975 album of love and loss.
But the most surprising element of the film is Marcus Carl Franklin, the young African-American actor who plays Dylan when he was fresh-faced prodigy from the North Country, hopping trains, and making up his biography as he went along in an attempt to make it more exotic than it actually was. For those who don’t know, Bob Dylan was born Robert Zimmerman, a nice Jewish boy from a nice family from the North Country in Minnesota.
It’s almost as if “I’m Not There” is the film that Dylan has been making all these years and it took Haynes to connect the dots and assemble it into a cinematic ode to one of the 20th Century’s great artists.
The director could have made a traditional biopic like “Ray” or “Walk the Line,” but that would hardly be appropriate for an artistic chameleon like Dylan. There is no beginning, middle and end to his story. For one, it’s still ongoing — he’s making some of the most celebrated albums of his career and he continues to tour like a man on a mission. Secondly, Haynes, knows as well as anyone else that Dylan’s story is a postmodern dramatic tale of an artist with an uncompromising devotion to his muse.
Haynes had to make an original film for the man who is arguably, the most original rock star of them all. “I’m Not There” is a film as uncompromising and enigmatic as Dylan himself.