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I'm Not There

Dir. Todd Haynes (The Weinstein Company) - 5 stars

By Juli Min, Crimson Staff Writer

A scruffy older man, played by Richard Gere, looks down at a young, black folk singer, played by Marcus Carl Franklin, and does not recognize himself. While a completely logical interaction in the world in which we live, the moment takes place in an infinitely more fascinating and surreal universe—a Bob-Dylan-verse—where confused identity is the norm.

“I’m Not There,” written and directed by Todd Haynes (“Far From Heaven”), is a brilliantly fresh film about the legendary life and music of Bob Dylan, complete with, needless to say, an amazing soundtrack.

Six actors—Marcus Carl Franklin, Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Cate Blanchett, Richard Gere, and Ben Whishaw—play fictional characters that represent different epochs of Dylan’s life. Tellingly, none of them actually share Dylan’s name. “Woody Guthrie” is a boy attempting to define himself in terms of folk music’s history. “Jack” is a Greenwich Village folk-music sensation and later, Christian convert and priest. “Robbie,” a counter-culture film star, also appears as a lover and a husband. “Jude” is a folk musician who has gone electric and gone to drugs. “Billy,” an older man living in peace and nature, has run far away from his past. And “Arthur Rimbaud,” a symbolist poet, grapples with questions about his work and its meaning in an angsty and ironic manner.

Haynes’ innovative decision to use multiple actors to represent Dylan comprehensively depicts the well-known musician’s many dimensions. The audience must mentally readjust to every jarring transformation, forced to reconcile their historical image of the man with the movie’s imposition of Dylan played by a black boy, or Dylan played by a woman. In this way, the audience not only watches a biopic, but undergoes the experience of following Dylan’s many surprising metamorphoses.

Franklin does a comical and charming job of introducing us to a young, idealistic Woody. Impressively, he also does justice to the Dylan songs he recorded for the film’s soundtrack. Bale attempts to capture Dylan’s voice, posture, and idiosyncrasies, but his hulking frame and fierce demeanor overpower the icon’s softer, more introspective nature. Gere, in the same way, retains that signature chivalry and charm that makes him too sweet to be true. Ledger and Whishaw play compelling incarnations of Dylan.

But nothing compares to Cate Blanchett.

Put simply, she steals the show. As Jude, her performance is utterly compelling, and this electric phase of Dylan’s life is so fascinating that watching Blanchett feels like watching Dylan in Martin Scorsese’s 2005 documentary “No Direction Home.” She channels Dylan. Her voice is perfect. Her walk is perfect. Even her hair is perfect.

Jude literally blows his audience away with a new, electric sound. And the fact that a woman is playing the role of Dylan proves equally as shocking and strange for the modern audience as his electric playing was when it first appeared in the mid 1960s. Jude’s exchanges with BBC interviewer Mr. Jones, played by Bruce Greenwood, also supply some of the most engaging dialogue in the film.

Aside from serving as a mere biography of Dylan’s life, the film brings to life many of his popularized media images. Cleverly written into the script are quotes from interviews and songs, while certain scenes play out iconic Dylan scenes, immortalized through photographs.

Haynes organically captures the life of Dylan as well as the myth. For example, the cover image from “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” album is acted out by Robbie and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) as they walk along a street, his shoulders hunched and her arms linked in his, completely in love.

But beyond the life and the myth, the film comes to grips with the very human experience of searching for self and meaning. As much as Dylan’s incarnations reject or hide from life, they always strive for fulfillment, whether through success, love, or God. At times, the film transitions abruptly and loudly between scenes—through a quick montage of the six faces or a surreal scene of fantasy or dementia—and the Dylan character is yet again on the move. Answers seem just around the corner, possibly to be found in the next reincarnation.

But the search for something more never ends. Dylan remains always on the go: changing, complicating, breaking, and disappearing. He is portrayed as ungraspable and inexplicable, and because of this, completely human.

—Staff writer Juli Min can be reached at kmin@fas.harvard.edu.

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