Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Repost: Review of I'm Not There

I have a lot of crap going on this week, including the fact that I haven't done my lousy taxes yet (due April 30 in Canada), so I don't have a ton of time to blog. Here is a review of the Bob Dylan biopic I'm Not There that I wrote after seeing it at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2007. I watched this film again last Saturday night, and I like it more every time I see it. I wonder if Bob has ever seen it?
I caught the second screening of I'm Not There, the biopic of Bob Dylan directed by Todd Haynes, at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 14, 2007. It gave me a huge headache. Not the film exactly, but from the venue. To accommodate the large audience, I'm Not There was screened in a ~700 person lecture hall at Ryerson University. I was in line to get in to the sold out show a half hour early, but apparently not early enough. I had to sit in the 4th row from the front, and by the time hour two rolled around, my back and neck were killing me and my eyes hurt from being so close. Being a lecture hall, there was no reclining seating that the theatre industry has spoiled me with for the last decade. Plus, no vending! GASP! No popcorn! And, the screening was at 12:30 pm so I came to the screening directly from work, and I didn't get lunch and was very hungry.

Crappy venue aside, the film is pretty amazing (even though I was tuning out during the last half hour). The acting is superb. Cate Blanchett is astonishing! She should be a shoo-in for Best Actress this year (Edit: she didn't win!). Christian Bale is amazing too - didn't recognize him at first - as is the 11-year-old Marcus Carl Franklin. Mr. Franklin has quite an acting career ahead of him. And, you get to see Heath Ledger (mostly) naked, so what's not to like?

Its definitely an artsy-fartsy movie, very non-linear and not for the average joe-blow American/Canadian. I tried to imagine my conservative, small-town-America father, who is a 'Nam vet and a graduate of the college class of '69, watching this movie without being completely confused. I can hear him saying, "What is this crap? I don't get it." However, Dylan fans will love it. Non-Dylan fans who appreciate film as an art form will really dig it too. But it is long. Although, in retrospect, I am wondering if my perception of its length was due to my bad seat. I mean, I sat through three hours of Lord of the friggin Rings with no complaints.

The Characters (in rough order of appearance in the film, although the characters do jump around in time and some characters overlap):

1) Marcus Carl Franklin – "Woody Guthrie" – 1959, 11 year old boy, film shot in color. Metaphor for Dylan's early life on how he started to learn how the world really worked, and how he started to form ideas and transfer these thoughts to song. Woody, originally from the fictional town of Riddle, Missouri, is hopping trains with hobos and traveling around the country. Very moving scene where he visits the real ailing Woody Guthrie in the hospital and strums guitar for him.

2) Ben Wishaw – "Arthur" – 19 year old Dylan, early 1960s, shot in black and white. Smallest role. Dylan as a young, rebellious, somewhat naive poet. Its only him and some cigarettes on the screen. Like he is being interviewed or interrogated. Sort of narrates the film, but not really.

3) Heath Ledger – "Robbie Clark" – Dylan from circa 1964 to 1977, mostly focusing on his personal life and marriage to "Claire" (played by Charlotte Gainsborough), a very loose interpretation of Sara Lowlands and probably an amalgamation of other women in Dylan's life. Shot in grainy color to reflect the time period. "Robbie Clark" is a famous actor and actually plays "Jack Rollins" (Christian Bale's Dylan) in one of his film roles. Actor as a metaphor for the perils of fame. Robbie is constantly away from his family working (touring?) on film productions, and has many extra-marital flings while on the "road." Robbie and Claire's rocky relationship and marital problems are mirrored by the Vietnam war.

4) Christian Bale – "Jack Rollins" – Dylan from 1961-62 and jumps to his conversion to Christianity (~1974). 60s "footage" is in black and white, 70s "footage" is in grainy color like above, while the present day is in color. Told from the perspective of a present day documentary reflected through the eyes of people who knew him "back then." Notably, Julianne Moore plays the character "Alice Fabian" who is a present day Joan Baez. 1970s evangelist Rollins is awesome.

5) Cate Blanchett – "Jude Quin" – when Dylan goes electric in 1965-66. Black and white. Best impression of Dylan as he is classically known (big hair, sunglasses, wears all black). How he deals with the backlash of going electric at the "New England Folk Festival." Follows his drug use and his fighting with the press, especially the BBC. Hysterical scene of implied drug use with the Beatles. Blanchett just nails his mannerisms and quirkiness. Michelle Williams plays the fashionable blond Coco Rivington, who is a metaphor for Edie Sedgwick . Another hysterical scene with drugged-up Dylan and Alan Ginsberg (played by David Cross), dancing around a ten foot crucifix, and Dylan yells at the stone Jesus, "Play your old stuff!" The segment ends with Dylan's infamous motorcycle crash.

6) Richard Gere – "William 'Billy' McMaster" – grizzled, late in life, maybe takes place back in the late 50s? Color. Reclusive "Billy the Kid," who takes on "Commissioner Garrett" who wants to plow over his town of Riddle, Missouri, to build a superhighway. He meets young "Woody Guthrie" (Franklin) who begs him to take on Garrett. Garrett is also a metaphor for all of the reporters who have hounded Dylan for most of his life. Billy argues with Garrett, and ultimately loses, but he realizes that there are still things worth fighting for. He hops a train, finds his guitar, and keeps on keepin' on. The movie comes full circle.

The soundtrack looks incredible, and will be released in North America on October 30. The soundtrack consists of most of my favorite rock and Americana bands, indie and otherwise (Eddie Vedder, Iron and Wine, Jeff Tweedy, Willie Nelson, The Hold Steady, among others). Sonic Youth does a bitchin' cover of "I'm Not There" in the ending credits. But, fear not Dylan fans, most of Dylan's originals are intact in the film. I'm Not There opens in New York and Los Angeles on November 21, and in Toronto on November 28. I can't wait to see this film again. Here's to hoping that my initial reaction was entirely due to my bad seat. (Edit: It was!)
Tunes from the soundtrack that appear in the film:

Jim James & Calexico - Goin' to Acapulco.mp3
Fantastic scene in the Richard Gere/Billy segment where singer Jim James of My Morning Jacket sings this song and leads a band (eclectic indie rockers Calexico) during a daunting funeral march.

Richie Havens - Tombstone Blues.mp3
In what what can only be described as casting brilliance, Havens appears in the film playing this song along with young Woody (Franklin).

Stephen Malkmus & The Million Dollar Bashers - Ballad of a Thin Man.mp3
Cate Blanchett/Jude lip syncs to Malkmus for all of his (her?) singing scenes. Awesome. The Million Dollar Bashers serve as a "house band" for the soundtrack. They are a super group consisting of guitarist Lee Ranaldo and drummer Steve Shelly of Sonic Youth, guitarist Nels Kline of Wilco, guitarist Tom Verlaine, keyboardist John Medeski, and bassist Tony Garnier (Bob Dylan's current bassist).

John Doe - Pressing On.mp3
Christian Bale/Jack lip syncs to Doe for his "born again" scene. Also Awesome.

Buy: I'm Not There Soundtrack CD (2007), I'm Not There DVD (2008)


simon2307 said...

I've not seen this, I've got it on DVD, it was a present I had last year, embarrassingly it's still in it's wrapper, not a huge Dylan fan but a fan, must get around to watching it before the sequel comes out ;)

PKL said...

Yeah, great film...all that an a diamond-cutting version of Tombstone Blues by Richie Havens. Who knew he had it in him?