I'm Not There

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 May, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 May, 2008, 12:00am

I'm Not There

Starring: Cate Blanchett, Heath Ledger, Richard Gere, Christian Bale, Director: Todd Haynes

The film: Todd Haynes' latest film takes its title from an unreleased Bob Dylan number from his Basement Tapes sessions in 1975. More importantly, I'm Not There sums up perfectly the nature of this 135-minute, intercutting revisit of the singer-songwriter's legacy: however obvious this is as a chronicle of Dylan's multifaceted history, none of the characters are called Bob Dylan and are only versions of the man in different phases of his life.

It could have been a conceited premise, especially when Haynes decided to cast six actors of different sexes, ages, skin colours and artistic kudos to play the quasi-Dylans. The most daring is the recruitment of black teenager Marcus Carl Franklin to play a young drifter (named after protest singer Woody Guthrie), brandishing the 'This Machine Kills Fascists' guitar, and Cate Blanchett's 'Jude', essentially a take on the musician in the 1960s, when he turned electric.

The gambit works, however, and I'm Not There is possibly one of the most inventive and visionary biopics ever to have been attempted in American cinema. Moving away from the norm of presenting Dylan's history in linear form, the film flits between various periods of his life using different visual styles: Jude, for example, is delivered in monochrome and documentary-style, a nod to Pennebaker's Don't Look Back, Richard Gere's ragged Billy the Kid (a reference to Dylan's acting gigs in westerns) exists in a surreal town filled with dreamlike creatures and a very old Pat Garrett (Bruce Greenswood, who also plays a stuck-up cultural critic - a version of Mr Jones - against Jude in the 60s segment).

What makes I'm Not There special is how Haynes never really allows his knowing references to become pastiches. Heath Ledger's Robbie Clark (below) might appear a clever invention - he's a 1970s actor battling a messy divorce (just like Dylan in the same era), while best known for starring in a biopic of political folk singer Jack Rollins (Christian Bale, whose character appears again later, as a born-again Christian) - but his problems with his professional and personal life are engaging, with a broken marriage with Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) given a powerful parallel through televised images of the end of the war in Vietnam.

The extras: This double-disc release contains a wealth of extras, including commentaries, deleted scenes, outtakes and making-of featurettes. There's a tribute to Ledger - who died in January, aged 28 - pieced together from unused and behind-the-scenes footage; and trailers showing the six characters doing different takes on Dylan's legendary Pennebaker-directed, cue card-flinging video clip for Subterranean Homesick Blues.

The verdict: A piece that's at once an intense study of the Bob Dylan legacy and a human drama at its prime - which is more than many of today's music films (such as Martin Scorsese's Shine a Light) can offer.