It was in 1968 that Bob Dylan first walked into my family house. Of course he wasn't actually there in person, but my mom's younger sister – our hippie aunt – came by one day bearing presents for her two nephews. My older brother was given a copy of Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits Vol.1 and I was given a couple of books. Somehow or other my brother convinced my mom to let him put the record on in the midst of a family visit – which I seem to recall included my great-grandmother, who only spoke Yiddish – and all of the sudden every voice in the house was stilled (and if you know anything about extended Jewish families you'll know what a miracle that is).
A hard nasal twang that caused everybody over the age of eleven in the room to screw their faces up in disgust stormed out of the hi-fi and took command of the room. All I heard was something about not working on Maggie's farm no more, before my mother gathered her wits and ejected the record. My mother never did really warm up to Bob Dylan, and although at the tender age of seven I wasn't set to become his biggest fan either, I do remember being captivated by "Mr Tambourine Man" as for some reason it made me think of someone walking along a beach watching the sun setting over the ocean.
I'm sure many people have their own Bob Dylan story, about how they first heard his music and their reaction to it. It's almost impossible to listen to him and not form an opinion about his music, the sound of his voice, and the lyrics of his songs. But who was this guy? All right so we know he was born Robert Zimmerman to middle class parents from Minnesota, but that doesn't tell us anything about the mind and soul behind the music.
In his movie I'm Not There, now available on DVD in a two disc special edition, director/sceenwriter Todd Haynes has placed Bob Dylan under a microscope in an attempt to show us the many facets of the man's character. Unlike a biography that details a person's life from beginning to end, Haynes has chosen to focus primarily on the period in Dylan's life that began with the infamous plugging in of electric guitars at the Newport Folk Festival and ended with his near death in a motorcycle accident.
One of the most important characteristics of Dylan's musical career has been his refusal to stand still and do the same thing for any length of time. The result of this was that in the earlier stages of his career he appeared to undergo an almost regular metamorphosis. What Haynes does to convey this chameleon-like element of his character is to use six separate actors to represent different aspects of Dylan's life and persona. Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Marcus Carl Franklin, Richard Gere, Heath Ledger, and Ben Whishaw were cast to take on either Dylan at a particular point in his career or to symbolize an aspect of his character and a part of his life.
The movie cuts back and forth between the various characters and, like the pieces of a puzzle that form an abstract collage, come together to present one of the most complete pictures of Bob Dylan that I've ever seen depicted. With someone as complex as Dylan a simple presentation of his life and career as a series of moments in time wouldn't have come close to capturing the essence of the man. By flashing back and forth between aspects, time periods, and actors, Haynes gradually builds a picture of a man driven by the need to constantly discover something new about himself and his art.
While at first it might be confusing — what does a young black boy named Woody Guthrie (Marcus Carl Franklin) or an actor named Robbie (Heath Ledger) who played the role of Jack, an other aspect of Dylan, in a movie, have to do with Bob Dylan? — as we keep returning to the various times and places it all gradually begins to make sense, if not intellectually then at least emotionally. Where Pablo Picasso used cubist painting techniques to try and show all sides of a figure on a flat canvas, Haynes is attempting something similar with film, as much as the medium will allow him to. As we flit from scene to scene we are being shown another side of the same image until Haynes' portrait is as complete as he can make it.
While all of the actors are exemplary in their portrayals of whatever aspect they are bringing to life, it's Cate Blanchett who steals the movie as Jude Quinn, the Bob Dylan who pissed everyone off by plugging in an electric guitar. Not only does she capture the essence of Dylan physically from that period of his life, she conveys both his arrogance and his insecurity over people's reactions to the change in direction that his music took. This is a brittle and fragile person who never wanted to be an idol, a pop star, or be anybody's voice but his own, let alone the supposed voice of a generation.
How can an artist grow and create if he or she is constantly tied down by the expectations of an audience who want him to keep doing the same things over and over again? The Dylan as depicted by the character of Jude Quinn is trapped in the snare of her own popularity and looks to try to use any means possible to cut her way free. If that means being arrogant and insulting with the press, and coming across like she doesn't give a shit anymore – then so be it. You get the feeling that the motorcycle accident of 1966 that almost killed Dylan was a salvation because it gave him the means to disappear and do what he wanted to do.
Interestingly enough a number of the songs used during the film are taken from the recording sessions that Bob Dylan and the Band did during the time he was hiding out from the world in Woodstock, New York. From the hours and hours of material they recorded at that time the album The Basement Tapes was created, Haynes has not only used songs off the album, but he was given permission to use material that hadn't been released before. While some of the songs in the movie have Dylan singing the original versions, others are new recordings of his material by contemporary performers, and some are sung by the actors.
In an extensive question and answer/interview session with the director Todd Haynes on the special features disc, he explains that the music he chose wasn't necessarily his favourite stuff, but the pieces he thought would help with movie's continuity and help carry it forward. Unlike a lot of special feature interviews with directors, this one is actually of some use as Haynes goes into quite a bit of depth about his process and how the film came together.
The rest of the special features are the usual deleted scenes and out takes, but a nice bonus is the inclusion of a complete version of "Subterranean Homesick Blues" sung by Richie Havens and young Marcus Carl Franklin. They've also included a nice tribute to Heath Ledger, which is a montage of clips from the film, outtakes, and bits and pieces from when the camera was rolling before and after a scene being shot. It's surprisingly moving, probably because it's not cluttered up with people talking about the man, but instead allows you to see and experience him.
Although I suppose that shouldn't be a surprise as that's exactly what I'm Not There does with its portrayal of Bob Dylan. Don't come to this film expecting to be spoon fed answers or explanations about Bob Dylan, because you will be bitterly disappointed. However if you come to the movie with expectation of being allowed an opportunity to observe him in great detail, and see many facets of his personality revealed in unusual ways then you will come away happy. Who knows, you might even be able to draw some conclusions of your own about the man who remains one of pop music's greatest enigmas even to this day. I've seen the future of the biographical movie and it's I'm Not There.