The Hang Fire Books Blog

The rantings of a bookdealer in Brooklyn, New York.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Movie Break: I'm Not There

I just saw Todd Haynes' experimental Bob Dylan movie I'm Not There. It's a psychological exploration of Dylan through the musical personas he's created and inhabited. To make the transformations more dramatic, Haynes cast six different actors as Dylan (including an African-American teenager and Cate Blanchett).

I avoided reading the reviews because I generally love Haynes' movies and I wanted to approach it fresh. It wasn't a disappointment (though it had numerous flaws, embarrassing moments and went on for about 10-20 minutes too long).

Basically if you enjoyed Haynes' Velvet Goldmine (which was about Bowie, Eno, Roxy Music, etc), this is the precise same formula applied to Dylan. The films are so similar in structure (down to the dramatic revealing of the artist's true name--as if they were some kind of black magician who's power was bound to the concealing of identity) that Haynes frequently crosses from self-referential to lazy.

I'm a moderate Dylan fan--I love Blonde on Blonde, the classic 60s live recordings, and Don't Look Back. A friend has been supplying me some of the more kabbalistic items, like the 5-disk Basement tapes and Eat the Document. Even with that comparatively small cache of Dylan knowledge, it's clear that this film is incredibly dense. It walks into record covers, nails all of the interview footage I've seen, and will send you racing for your dusty vinyl and youtube to see where Haynes was coming from.

With 6 actors you're bound to get uneven portrayals. The best are Marcus Carl Franklin--who's hilarious representing Dylan's down-trodden, hobo days as an oppressed Negro--and Cate Blanchett who captures Dylan at his most strung-out, obnoxious and perverse. Less interesting are Heath Ledger as a womanizing hunk of beefcake and Richard Gere (!) as Dylan in Billy the Kid exile.

I also appreciated that (unlike Bowie) Dylan allowed for the creative use and adaptation of his music to Haynes' story ideas. The mixture of sharp covers (by Cat Power, Sonic Youth, Richie Havens, Calexico) and Dylan rarities make the soundtrack a worthy buy.

Recommended viewing for a more-than-casual Dylan fan, who has the patience for a biopic that's as slippery and sarcastic as its subject.

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