I'm Not There (15)

2.00

Todd Haynes's hotly anticipated I'm Not There seems to take pride in what it is not it's not a straight biopic, not a rock movie, not a proper narrative, not a love letter, not a crowd-pleaser, not even a film that mentions the name "Bob Dylan". Not a lot of fun? Well, that's a moot point. It is an ambitiously conceived and lovingly textured piece of work, a movie of images and distorted facts that will hang about your consciousness long after you've seen it. In that way it more readily approximates to the recollection of a dream whose meaning can be glimpsed in fragments but then suddenly recedes and dissolves. A bit like the man himself.

Haynes constructs this dream portrait from the inside out. Instead of using one or two actors to impersonate the younger and older Dylan he shuffles together six pseudonymous characters four men, a boy, and a woman to cover not only those changing times but his different personas and moods. It is a kind of cubistic approach, which allows you to see one object from several distinct angles. One of the six Dylans, played by Ben Whishaw and filmed head-on in black and white, gives his name as "Arthur Rimbaud" and quotes his famous line "I is Someone Else".

We are in a hall of endless distorting mirrors, where identity is provisional and appearance is deceptive: whichever Dylan you think he is, he's not. So there's no need to adjust your eyes on seeing the fledgling singer as a 12-year-old black kid (Marcus Carl Franklin) who calls himself Woody Guthrie, after Dylan's folk-singer hero, and rides boxcars. This is the self-mythologising Dylan, who often lied about where he came from but didn't seem to care when those lies got found out.

The other characters are easier to cross-reference with the historical Dylan. Christian Bale plays Jack Rollins, the Greenwich Village protest-folkie, and later doubles, quite movingly, as the evangelical Pastor John. Heath Ledger plays a hotshot actor of Nixon-era America who represents the failed husband and lost soul Dylan became; might he also be Haynes's sly comment on the paradox that Dylan, whose life became a performance, never really excelled as an actor?

Richard Gere plays Billy the Kid, a grizzled Peckinpah-like recluse glimpsing the world going wrong from his hilltop fastness, then completing the circle when he breaks out of jail and jumps on a boxcar. The film delivers its real casting coup in Cate Blanchett's impersonation of the wired, trippy, tricky Dylan of 1965-66, when he smote the folkie hordes with his electric axe. It took me a while but I eventually fell for her performance, first for the scarecrow gangliness so familiar from DA Pennebaker's seminal tour-documentary Don't Look Back (Haynes nods to the influence by filming these sequences in black and white), then for the minutely observed repertoire of tics eye-rubbing, chain-smoking and the rapidly diminishing charm. Blanchett doesn't nail the rough croon of Dylan's voice (I'm not sure anybody ever has), but she does get the best line of the movie, introducing a blond-haired rocker at a party to his manager: "This is Brian Jones... from that groovy covers band". The Beatles also get short shrift.

Jones is one of very few here to be mentioned by his real name Allen Ginsberg, for some reason, is another. The rest wear the flimsiest of fictional veils. Julianne Moore (so good in Haynes's previous Far From Heaven) plays as near to Joan Baez as dammit, Charlotte Gainsbourg is Dylan's neglected wife Sara, Michelle Williams the doomed Edie Sedgwick, and Mark Camacho an absolute dead ringer for Dylan's manager Albert Grossman. Some of these feature as talking-head interviewees describing the Dylan they knew, in the manner of Woody Allen's Zelig, another man who wasn't there.

Fans will enjoy spotting the connections between fact and fiction, and the quotations from songs, but I do wonder what it will mean to anyone else. We have to accept that there are some out there only mildly interested in Dylan, and some who care nothing at all.

And now I have to admit that, even as a diehard fan, I found myself drifting through quite a lot of it. All praise to Haynes and his co-writer Oren Moverman for their refusal to ride the conventional rails of the biopic, and for the imaginative overlap of Dylan's music I especially liked the way songs from one period of his life kick in to soundtrack another, for example the 1997 "Cold Irons Bound" cropping up during the drug-addled, paranoid mid-Sixties. But, sadly, film-making ingenuity does not guarantee attention, or gratitude, and two-hours-plus of fragments, dream-scenes, surreal squibs and mini-montages becomes slightly wearying. Haynes has spent so much time in the editing room that you sense that the film has been chopped and diced and left without a real centre. That might be the point It's Not There and it could be argued that Haynes is not only being more innovative as a storyteller but also more truthful to the maddening, elusive, protean nature of Dylan himself. I have a feeling that I'm Not There will be more interesting to think and talk about than it is to actually watch. As the man once sang, "Something is happening here, but you don't know what it is..."

Even if you think you do know what it is, this fantasia on the lives of Dylan is far from an unqualified pleasure.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas