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But star turns are less important here than the visual vibe that Taymor brings to the songs. Strip away the plot which would be my solution to the wrangles over final cut and Across the Universe has about an hour of creatively illustrated songs. You could almost start a cable channel based on this aesthetic. Just think: What if a channel like MTV had... music videos?
I'M NOT THERE
Someone who looks a lot like the mid-'60s Bob Dylan except that he's called Jude Quinn and is played by Cate Blanchett is lounging in a London hotel room, reading what he thinks are exaggerated news reports of his behavior. "God," he mutters, "I'm glad I'm not me."
In I'm Not There, they're not him: the six actors who impersonate some aspect of Dylan. The young, Minnesota Bob is played by a charming black kid, Marcus Carl Franklin, who gives every indication of being a blues-guitar prodigy. A 19-year-old Dylan, spouting aphorisms at a court hearing, is London stage actor Ben Whishaw. Blanchett plays prime-time Bob, the electrified folk-rock star who's getting annoyed by fame. The '70s, counterfeit-cowboy Dylan is Richard Gere. The movie leaps further into fancy by inventing Jake Rollins (Christian Bale), the Dylan character in a Hollywoodish '60s biopic called Grain of Sand, and Robbie Clarke (Heath Ledger), the actor who plays Jack. Is everyone confused now?
This exhilarating experiment addresses the question at the root of any biography: Can anything authoritative be said about any person? And a deeper question of identity: Who the heck are we? Dylan, like anyone, may be largely unknown to himself, let alone to those who have listened to him, or followed his career, or written about his life. The movie begins by rendering this opacity graphically, as the letters of its title appear on the screen: "I'm he"... "I'm her" ... "I'm here" ... "I'm not here" ... "I'm not there." (You could also use these letters for the phrases "In her," "In here," "I'm other," "I'm otter" and "I mother.") This little game tells us that, since nobody can say for sure who or what Dylan is, an outsider Haynes, say has the right to make his subject a him or a her, here or there or none of the above. He does give the film the subtitle: "inspired by the music and many lives of Bob Dylan."
In the 1977 That Obscure Object of Desire, Luis Buñuel famously cast two actresses to play one character (though it wasn't to suggest a dual nature; it was because who knows why, the man was a surrealist). Two years ago, in Palindromes, Todd Solondz had the lead character, a 12-year-old girl, played by eight actors (including a boy and two adults). Haynes' use makes the most sense, at least the kind of sense a filmmaker can pitch at a backers' meeting, since Dylan did have many lives, all of his own creation.
By the time he arrived in New York, at 19, he had already changed his surname, from Zimmerman to Dylan, after the poet Dylan Thomas; but it was still the gesture of a would-be old-fashioned movie star. He told his new friends that he'd run away from home as a kid, lived as a hobo, joined the circus, traveled to many states (all a fiction). He started his musical life as a singer of traditional ballads, then updated the folk-protest genre pioneered by his idol Woody Guthrie, then ditched that genre for songs of betrayal and alienation, then went electric and created folk rock. That's four careers in four years: more public-persona reinventions than Madonna could manage, and surely enough for four actors to chew on.
Blanchett's, of course, is the star turn. both because it's an inspired stunt that she executes with aplomb (she's a more convincing Dylan, no joke, than she was a Katharine Hepburn) and because she's playing Dylan in 1965, the year he lost his old-folkie admirers on his way to rock stardom. With a fabulous frizz do, and a posture stooped by the burden of celebrity, s/he cavorts with the Beatles at a garden party, meets Allen Ginsberg (Arrested Development's David Cross) on the road and it was always a game with Dylan deflects reporters' questions on his political opinions. "Who cares what I think? I'm not the President. I'm not some shepherd. I'm just a songwriter."
As he showed in Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story and Velvet Goldmine, Haynes is fascinated by the drudgery of pop fame the gilded cages of hotel rooms, cars and private soirées in between gigs and the drug use that is part of that routine. I'm Not There is more beguiled by this phase of Dylan's career than I am, and gets repetitious and draggy here, like some long folk ballad in its seventh or eighth verse.
The challenge for any movie without a strong, conventional narrative is to find another way to keep the momentum and the audience's interest from flagging. Haynes, like Taymor, is an avant-gardist with a showman's flair, and his movie has as many styles borrowed from '60s movies from Richard Lester's Beatles films, from D.A. Pennabaker's cinema verite Dylan documentary, from Woodstock and European art films as it has actors playing Dylan. This buffet of styles makes the movie consistently diverting, if not engrossing.
I'd enjoy sitting through a cut of I'm Not There if it were twice its current length, or half. At 135 mins. (about the same as Across the Universe), the film almost dares a viewer to choose favorite parts, and others for pruning. The section in which Gere as an older Bob hunts for his lost dog baffled and bored me; the Franklin and Bale parts I found quite moving; Blanchett is worth watching through her character's triumphs, disasters and longueurs. Overall, I'm glad I was there.
Haynes does know how to end his film: with a minute-or-two view of the real Dylan at a concert, playing an extended vamp of "Mr. Tambourine Man" on the harmonica, focused on freeing the soul of his song through his craft. It's a reminder that, whatever social movements the Beatles and Bob Dylan were drafted to represent, whatever iconic status they've been freighted with for the past 40 years, all they really made was music. And that was enough.