Go Ahead and Look Back

Todd Haynes is in the kitchen with his gorgeously impressionistic portrait of Bob Dylan, I'm Not There.

The winner of the Bob Dylan impersonation contest is Cate Blanchett. But that doesn’t necessarily mean she’s the best actor in I’m Not There, filmmaker Todd Haynes’ remarkable mosaic tribute to the most endlessly discussed troubadour of the 20th century. Blanchett, Christian Bale, Richard Gere, Heath Ledger, English actor Ben Whishaw, and young performer Marcus Carl Franklin all contribute to co-writer/director Haynes’ electrifyingly impressionistic portrait of Dylan — each actor portraying him at a different stage of his life, with Bale going twice.

I’m Not There is more than a parade of Dylan parodies. Haynes and writer Oren Moverman are obviously fans of what they call “The Music & Many Lives of Bob Dylan,” and their non-linear screenplay captures the crazy-carny spirit of Dylan’s self-portraits — meaning everything he ever wrote or sang. So Arthur Rimbaud; Woody Guthrie; Alias; the town fool of Fort Sumner, New Mexico; Old Tom Moore from the Bummer Shore in the days of ’49; Robert Johnson the devil’s protégé; and Bobby Zimmerman from the Mesabi Range, who liked T.S. Eliot, all crowd into a dirty boxcar and go down that road, feelin’ bad. They weren’t gonna be treated that-a-way. I’m Not There is a very special kind of life and times. It leaves ordinary musical biopics like Ray and Walk the Line and Beyond the Sea in the dust.

Robbie Clark (played by Ledger) is Dylan as husband and family man. Movie actor Robbie and his French wife Claire (wistfully drawn by Charlotte Gainsbourg) lead the pop star’s backstage life, cocktail-partying with Norman Mailer and feeling Vietnamese heat coming off their TV. Yet they quarrel in a petty way over their relationship, in trouble because Robbie is forever heading out the door to the languid, nocturnal rhythms of “Visions of Johanna.” They sleep uncomfortably in a comfortable home. Old friends can no longer relate to Robbie. His reply to their complaint that he doesn’t seem concerned with the war: “There are no politics.”

Little Woody, on the other hand, seems to have dropped in from the 1930s. A preteen African-American boy toting a Woody Guthrie-style guitar case announcing “This machine kills fascists,” Woody (Marcus Carl Franklin) hops aboard a freight train and instantly bonds with two old hobos — we’re afraid they’re going to rape him, but no, they see him as a comrade. Later, Woody turns up in the prosperous living room of some white liberal squares (Haynes revisiting Far from Heaven), who are absolutely thrilled to have found someone so authentic. And he is welcomed to dinner by a black family, whose mother straightens him out about all this Great Depression stuff: “Live your own time, child.” Woody plays his guitar left-handed — maybe he’ll grow up to be Jimi Hendrix.

In green, woodsy Riddle, Missouri (actually shot in Quebec), Billy (Richard Gere) has gotten back to the land as a middle-aged man, happy to have escaped the pressure of fame and content to interact with the ghostly inhabitants of what critic Greil Marcus calls “Old Weird America.” We’re in the Basement Tapes years. There’s a celebration going on in the town square — Sheriff Pat Garrett (Bruce Greenwood, who appears elsewhere in the film as a hectoring BBC-TV host) speaks from a bandstand where stands the open coffin of a teenage girl, a vision from Wisconsin Death Trip. Cue “Goin’ to Acapulco.”

Compared to Gere’s, Ledger’s, and Franklin’s evocative characters, the figure of Arthur (as in Rimbaud), played by Ben Whishaw, seems tacked on and unnecessary.

Bale’s two performances are wonderful. He plays the up-and-coming protest singer in the guise of Jack Rollins, re-enacting Dylan’s legendary performance in a field for black sharecroppers and being dissed by the Joan Baez stand-in, Alice Fabian (Julianne Moore), as “this toad” who magically transformed himself into the symbol of a generation. Time goes by and Bale returns as Preacher John, with a mesmerizing bit of born-again testifying from Dylan’s Christian period.

Director Haynes digs the shit out of early-’60s New York. It’s plain in the title sequence, a Robert-Frank-ish montage of subway and street faces. This is the time of “Ballad in Plain D” and Tarantula, Andy Warhol and Allen Ginsberg (personified by look-alike David Cross), freewheelin’ down Greenwich Village streets. And then, shazam! It’s 1966, so completely different than 1964, and Jude Quinn (Blanchett) is ravaging England (“What’s the matter, don’t you like American music?”), destroying the Newport Folk Festival, and turning himself into a professional sphinx, the worst interview subject in the world. Blanchett nails all this perfectly. (“People think I have this fantastic imagination. It gets lonely.”)

She also lip-synchs Stephen Malkmus and the Million Dollar Bashers’ version of “Ballad of a Thin Man” in a brilliant production number set in London. Haynes and music supervisor Randy Poster used original Dylan recordings in combination with an imaginative playlist of covers by such artists as Sonic Youth, John Doe, Eddie Vedder, Roger McGuinn, Gainsbourg, Willie Nelson, Los Lobos, and Tom Verlaine. Richie Havens turns in a beautiful front-porch acoustic version of “Tombstone Blues” with juvie actor Franklin. Foolish to try a frontal assault on Dylan’s music. It’s too big. Better to sneak up on it. They could have played some Bobby Vee, Hank Williams, or Dave Van Ronk, but there’s never enough time to cram in all Dylan’s influences.

No visits to Minnesota, either. I’m Not There jumps around in the manner of Dylan’s autobiography Chronicles and Larry Charles’ misunderstood 2003 film Masked and Anonymous, starring Dylan as a once-famous folk singer named Jack Fate. Haynes was not at all afraid to tackle a subject already nailed in two exceptional documentaries, D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back and Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home. I’m Not There may indeed be the one essential Dylan film. Call it Go Ahead and Look Back.

What more is there to say about Dylan anyway, except that he’s the walking embodiment of a deceptively narrow slice of music that runs from the Child Ballads to Bill Monroe to Calexico, with stopovers in French symbolist poetry and the blues — the produce of long, lonely radio nights in the north country. As Jude Quinn puts it: “Yesterday, today, and tomorrow, all in the same room.”

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