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November 27, 2007 |

By John Williams | Film | November 27, 2007 |

Just about a year ago, the famed choreographer Twyla Tharp saw the closing of “The Times They Are A Changin’,” her Broadway show based on the songs of Bob Dylan. The musical had been officially open barely a month, during which it was savaged by critics as a misbegotten attempt to literally present some of Dylan’s most surrealistic lyrics. As one critic asked, “Sure, Dylan is rock’s greatest songwriter. But doesn’t Tharp know he’s also one of the biggest jive-talkers in history?”

In I’m Not There, director Todd Haynes talks plenty of his own jive, and pulls off the cinematic high-wire act of the year. His decision to cast six different actors as the adult Dylan — including Cate Blanchett and Marcus Carl Franklin, who is barely a teenager and African-American — generated headlines well in advance of the movie’s release. But the finished product, including the casting gimmick, belies easy summary and dismissal. For one thing, not one of the characters played by the ensemble cast is named Bob Dylan. The only three characters recognizable as the musical legend are Ben Whishaw, who introduces himself as Arthur Rimbaud; Christian Bale as Jack Rollins, who represents the folkie Dylan of the early Village years; and, centrally, Blanchett, in a charming, go-for-broke performance as Jude Quinn, the Dylan of the mid-1960s, world-famous, working at the top of his game, and a maddeningly cantankerous antagonist of the British press. (Much of Quinn’s story line follows the arc of D.A. Pennebaker’s rightfully revered documentary about Dylan, Don’t Look Back.)

In the memoir he published three years ago, Dylan (who was famously born Robert Zimmerman in Minnesota) wrote about his early encounter with a Columbia publicist, who asked several questions about the singer’s background. Dylan describes his answers, including his description of coming to New York City by hopping boxcars on freight trains, as “pure hokum…hophead talk. … I hadn’t come in on a freight train at all. What I did was come across the country from the Midwest in a four-door sedan, ‘57 Impala…”

So when the movie begins with the baby-faced Franklin hopping onto a train and introducing himself to the two hobos sharing his car as Woody Guthrie, it’s clear that Haynes is sculpting from the plentiful pile of Dylan bullshit, not whatever biographical material has been verified over the years. This is a creatively wise but ironically conservative decision. Gimmicks are the safe choice when approaching Dylan. Sure, I’m Not There has brilliant fun spitting in the eye of the exhausted, traditional biopic, but it doesn’t reconfigure our mythic vision of Dylan — it reinforces it.

What’s left is for the audience to sit back and see how Haynes will recreate certain key moments in the legend — Dylan’s visits to a dying Guthrie at a New Jersey hospital; his loud, electric set at a folk festival that angered die-hard fans; his serious motorcycle accident; a fan screaming “Judas!” during a show in the UK. It’s all here, most of it with flair and humor (a visual gag at the start of the electric set, a story dulled by a million tellings, ingeniously manages to recreate the sense of surprise and betrayal felt by many in attendance). The film has great fun with just about everything. It’s impossible to get across a sense of its energy as it frolics along like the Beatles do in a hilarious, helium-fueled cameo.

It’s not all a lark, though. Heath Ledger plays Robbie Clark, an actor playing Jack Rollins in a biopic (a mega-meta move in an already meta movie). His marriage to Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) mirrors Dylan’s own troubled family life — the dissolution of which led to his masterpiece Blood on the Tracks. Robbie is hounded by paparazzi, and Dylan’s attempts at living quietly are embodied by Richard Gere as Billy the Kid, spending his later years in a small town called Riddle, Missouri. Like so many of Haynes’ decisions, this one plays several notes at once: Dylan’s relationship to the public eye; his recording of a soundtrack for a film about Billy the Kid; and the many surreal characters he created (Riddle is populated by people who celebrate Halloween year-round, wearing outlandish costumes). This sounds more than a little precious and obvious on paper, but luckily movies aren’t made on paper, and Haynes’ technique allows him to vault over pitfalls.

The most bewitching of the movie’s images comes when Billy happens upon a public funeral for a young girl. Her casket is vertically raised on the platform of a gazebo while a singer in white face paint (a la Dylan’s stage make-up on a mid-’70s tour) croons a haunting rendition of “Goin’ to Acapulco.” Billy pensively takes in the ceremony as the town’s residents gather around the stage in their garb. It’s a mournful, stunning scene that encapsulates Haynes’ vision as well as both the earnestness and zaniness of Dylan’s imagination, and I’m Not There would have benefited from rolling the credits soon after. Instead, in one of his few mistakes, Haynes spends another 15 minutes or so wrapping up story lines in a way far more suited to a traditional telling. These prolonged moments are missteps, but the movie regains its footing in time to close with archival footage of Dylan himself blowing into a harmonica.

I’m Not There doesn’t sanctify its subject — several laughs are at his expense — but it doesn’t challenge him either. For something approximating a shock, you’ll have to turn to the memoir, in which Dylan spends a full two pages trumpeting the greatness of Harry Belafonte, and where he writes of his own “plain speaking” father, “(he) was the best man in the world and probably worth a hundred of me.” Those confessions might be more hokum, but they also might be the closest we ever get to the real Robert Zimmerman.

John Williams lives in Brooklyn. He’s a freelance writer. He blogs at A Special Way of Being Afraid.

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