|I'm Not There|
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Todd Haynes|
|Narrated by||Kris Kristofferson|
|Music by||Bob Dylan|
|Edited by||Jay Rabinowitz|
|Box office||$11.7 million|
I'm Not There is a 2007 biographical musical drama film directed by Todd Haynes and co-written with Oren Moverman, inspired by the life and music of American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan. Six actors depict different facets of Dylan's public personas: Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Marcus Carl Franklin, Richard Gere, Heath Ledger, and Ben Whishaw. A caption at the start of the film declares it to be "inspired by the music and the many lives of Bob Dylan"; this is the only mention of Dylan in the film apart from song credits, and his only appearance in it is concert footage from 1966 shown during the film's final moments.
The film tells its story using non-traditional narrative techniques, intercutting the storylines of seven different Dylan-inspired characters. The title of the film is taken from the 1967 Dylan Basement Tape recording of "I'm Not There", a song that had not been officially released until it appeared on the film's soundtrack album. The film received a generally favorable response, and appeared on several top ten films lists for 2007, topping the lists for The Village Voice, Entertainment Weekly, Salon and The Boston Globe. Particular praise went to Cate Blanchett for her performance, culminating in a Volpi Cup for Best Actress from the Venice Film Festival, the Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress, along with an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress nomination.
I'm Not There uses a nonlinear narrative, shifting between six characters in separate storylines "inspired by the music and many lives of Bob Dylan". Each character represents a different facet of Dylan's public persona: poet (Arthur Rimbaud), prophet (Jack Rollins/Father John), outlaw (Billy McCarty), fake (Woody Guthrie), "rock and roll martyr" (Jude Quinn), and "star of electricity" (Robbie Clark).
Production notes published by distributor The Weinstein Company explain that the film "dramatizes the life and music of Bob Dylan as a series of shifting personae, each performed by a different actor—poet, prophet, outlaw, fake, star of electricity, rock and roll martyr, born-again Christian—seven identities braided together, seven organs pumping through one life story."
19 year-old Arthur Rimbaud is questioned by interrogators. His cryptic responses are interspersed throughout the film, including remarks on fatalism, the nature of poets, "seven simple rules for life in hiding", and chaos.
In 1959, an 11-year-old African American boy calling himself Woody Guthrie is freighthopping through the Midwestern United States. Carrying a guitar in a case bearing the slogan "this machine kills fascists", he plays blues music and sings about outdated topics such as trade unionism. One African American woman advises him to sing about the issues of his own time instead. Woody is attacked by hobos and nearly drowns, but is rescued by a white couple who take him in. They are impressed with his musical talents, but Woody runs off when they receive a telephone call from a juvenile corrections center in Minnesota telling them he is an escaped fugitive. Upon learning that the real Woody Guthrie is deathly ill, Woody travels to New Jersey to visit Guthrie in the hospital.
The career of folk musician Jack Rollins is framed as a documentary film, told by interviewees including folk singer Alice Fabian. Jack becomes a star of the Greenwich Village folk scene in the early 1960s, praised by fans for his protest songs. He signs to Columbia Records, but in 1963, just as the Vietnam War is escalating, he stops singing protest songs and turns away from folk music, believing that neither effects real social or political change. Following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Jack gets drunk at a ceremony where he is receiving an award from a civil rights organization. Remarking in his acceptance speech that he saw something of himself in Kennedy's assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, he is booed and derided by the audience. He goes into hiding, and in 1974 enters a bible study course in Stockton, California and emerges a born again Christian, denouncing his past and becoming an ordained minister performing gospel music under the name "Father John".
Robbie Clark is a 22-year-old actor who plays Jack Rollins in the 1965 biographical film Grain of Sand. During filming in Greenwich Village in January 1964, he falls in love with French artist Claire, and they soon marry. Grain of Sand is a hit and Robbie becomes a star, but their relationship is strained and Claire observes Robbie flirting with other women. She is particularly offended when, during an argument in 1968 over whether the evils of the world can be changed, he opines that women can never be poets. Eventually Robbie moves out of their house, then goes to London for four months to film a thriller and has an affair with his female co-star. Richard Nixon's January 1973 announcement of the Paris Peace Accords inspires Claire to ask for a divorce. She gains custody of their two daughters, but allows Robbie to take them on a boating trip.
Jude Quinn is a popular former folk singer whose performance with a full band and electric guitars at a New England jazz and folk festival outrages his fans, who accuse him of selling out. Travelling to London, Jude is asked by journalist Keenan Jones if he still cares about people, or thinks folk music has failed to achieve its goals of sociopolitical change. Jude is attacked by a hotel employee, hangs out with The Beatles, encounters his former lover Coco Rivington, and meets poet Allen Ginsberg, who suggests that Jude "sold out to God". Interviewing Jude, Keenan notes that Jude's songs are being used as recruitment tools by the Black Panther Party and opines that Jude refuses to feel deeply about anything while simultaneously being very self-conscious; Jude is offended and walks out of the interview. At a concert performing "Ballad of a Thin Man", Jude is booed and called a "Judas" by the audience. Keenan reveals on television that, despite his claims of a rough-and-tumble vagabond past, Jude is actually Aaron Jacob Edelstein, the suburban, middle-class, educated son of a Brookline, Massachusetts department store owner. Faced with a long string of upcoming European tour dates, Jude spirals into drug use and is killed in a motorcycle accident.
Outlaw Billy McCarty, believed to have been killed by Pat Garrett, lives in hiding in rural Riddle, Missouri. Learning that Commissioner Garrett plans to demolish the town to build a highway, which has caused several townspeople to commit suicide, Billy confronts Garrett. Garrett recognizes Billy as the outlaw Billy the Kid and has him thrown in jail. He is broken out by his friend Homer and hops into a boxcar on a passing train, where he finds Woody's guitar. As he rides away, he remarks on the nature of freedom and identity.
Todd Haynes and his producer, Christine Vachon, approached Dylan's manager, Jeff Rosen, to obtain permission to use Dylan's music and to fictionalize elements of Dylan's life. Rosen suggested that Haynes should send a one-page synopsis of his film for submission to Dylan. Rosen advised Haynes not to use the word 'genius' or 'voice of a generation.' The page Haynes submitted began with a quote from Arthur Rimbaud: "I is someone else", and then continued:
If a film were to exist in which the breadth and flux of a creative life could be experienced, a film that could open up, as opposed to consolidating, what we think we already know walking in, it could never be within the tidy arc of a master narrative. The structure of such a film would have to be a fractured one, with numerous openings and a multitude of voices, with its prime strategy being one of refraction, not condensation. Imagine a film splintered between seven separate faces — old men, young men, women, children — each standing in for spaces in a single life.
Dylan gave Haynes permission to proceed with his project. Haynes developed his screenplay with writer Oren Moverman. In the course of writing, Haynes has acknowledged that he became uncertain whether he could successfully carry off a film which deliberately confused biography with fantasy in such an extreme way. According to the account of the film that Robert Sullivan published in the New York Times: "Haynes called Jeff Rosen, Dylan’s right hand, who was watching the deal-making but staying out of the scriptwriting. Rosen, he said, told him not to worry, that it was just his own crazy version of what Dylan is."
In a comment on why six actors were employed to portray different facets of Dylan's personality, Haynes wrote:
The minute you try to grab hold of Dylan, he's no longer where he was. He's like a flame: If you try to hold him in your hand you'll surely get burned. Dylan's life of change and constant disappearances and constant transformations makes you yearn to hold him, and to nail him down. And that's why his fan base is so obsessive, so desirous of finding the truth and the absolutes and the answers to him – things that Dylan will never provide and will only frustrate.... Dylan is difficult and mysterious and evasive and frustrating, and it only makes you identify with him all the more as he skirts identity.
A further Dylan-based character named Charlie, based on Charlie Chaplin, was dropped before filming began. Haynes described him as "a little tramp, coming to Greenwich Village and performing feats of magic and being an arbiter of peace between the beats and the folkies."
The film within a film, Grain of Sand, is not only important for the plot of I'm Not There but also for the film's connection to Bob Dylan's life. Larry Gross suggests that Grain of Sand actor Robbie may be the film's most accurate portrayal of Dylan despite being "a fictional actor playing a fictional alternative version of a real person" because of his tumultuous relationship with Claire. Gross also notes parallels between Robbie and Claire's ultimately failed marriage and Dylan's relationship with Suze Rotolo, claiming that Claire's character seems to be a portrayal of Rotolo, especially considering the shot in I'm Not There that mimicks the photo of Rotolo and Dylan on the cover of The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan.
The film features numerous songs by Dylan, performed by Dylan and also recordings by other artists. The songs feature as both foreground—performed by artists on camera (e.g. "Goin' to Acapulco", "Pressing On")—and background accompaniment to the action. A notable non-Dylan song in the movie is "(I'm Not Your) Steppin' Stone" by The Monkees, which plays in the background of a party scene set in London.
In January 2007, The Weinstein Company acquired U.S distribution rights to the film. I'm Not There had its world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival on August 31, 2007. The film went onto screen at the Toronto International Film Festival, London Film Festival, and the New York Film Festival. The film opened in limited release in the United States on November 21, 2007. It was then released in Germany on February 28, 2008, by Tobis Film.
I'm Not There was released on DVD as a 2-disc special edition on May 6, 2008. The DVD special features include audio commentary from Haynes, deleted scenes, featurettes, a music video, audition tapes for certain cast members, trailers, and a Bob Dylan filmography and discography.
I'm Not There received generally positive reviews from critics. On review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, the film has a 76% approval rating based on 157 reviews, with an average rating of 7 out 10. The site's critical consensus states: "I'm Not There's unique editing, visuals, and multiple talented actors portraying Bob Dylan make for a deliciously unconventional experience. Each segment brings a new and fresh take on Dylan's life." On Metacritic, the film has a weighted average score of 73 out of 100, based on 35 reviews.
Writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Anthony DeCurtis said that casting six different actors, including a woman and an African-American child, to play Dylan was "a preposterous idea, the sort of self-consciously 'audacious'—or reassuringly multi-culti—gambit that, for instance, doomed the Broadway musical based on the life and music of John Lennon. Yet in I'm Not There, the strategy works brilliantly." He especially praised Blanchett:
Her performance is a wonder, and not simply because, as Jude Quinn, she inhabits the twitchy, amphetamine-fired Dylan of 1965–66 with unnerving accuracy. Casting a woman in this role reveals a dimension to the acerbic Dylan of this era that has rarely been noted...Blanchett's translucent skin, delicate fingers, slight build, and pleading eyes all suggest the previously invisible vulnerability and fear that fueled Dylan's lacerating anger. It's hard to imagine that any male actor, or any less-gifted female actor for that matter, could have lent such rich texture to the role.
Several critics praised Blanchett's performance as the mid-60s Dylan. Newsweek magazine described Blanchett as "so convincing and intense that you shrink back in your seat when she fixes you with her gaze." The Charlotte Observer called Blanchett "miraculously close to the 1966 Dylan."
Todd McCarthy of Variety, concluded that the film was well-made, but was ultimately a speciality event for Dylan fans, with little mainstream appeal. He wrote: "Dylan freaks and scholars will have the most fun with I'm Not There, and there will inevitably be innumerable dissertations on the ways Haynes has both reflected and distorted reality, mined and manipulated the biographical record and otherwise had a field day with the essentials, as well as the esoterica, of Dylan's life. All of this will serve to inflate the film's significance by ignoring its lack of more general accessibility. In the end, it's a specialists' event." For Roger Ebert, the film was enjoyable cinematically, yet never sought to resolve the enigmas of Dylan's life and work: "Coming away from I'm Not There, we have, first of all, heard some great music...We've seen six gifted actors challenged by playing facets of a complete man. We've seen a daring attempt at biography as collage. We've remained baffled by the Richard Gere cowboy sequence, which doesn't seem to know its purpose. And we have been left not one step closer to comprehending Bob Dylan, which is as it should be."
In September 2012, Dylan commented on I'm Not There in an interview published in Rolling Stone. When journalist Mikal Gilmore asked Dylan whether he liked the film, he responded: "Yeah, I thought it was all right. Do you think that the director was worried that people would understand it or not? I don't think he cared one bit. I just think he wanted to make a good movie. I thought it looked good, and those actors were incredible."
The film appeared on several critics' lists of the top ten films of 2007.
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