Seven years ago Todd Haynes first began the seeds of what would I’m Not There, arguably the writer/director’s most accomplished film to date. He turned to the icon Bob Dylan, he has said, because he was at an emotional low point. He believes that most people find Dylan in times of crisis, and once you find him, once you become obsessed with his music, it can be an unending journey of discovery; every rock overturned simply uncovers another mystery.
Haynes is one of the few filmmakers who contacted Dylan, asked for the rights, and got them. He was in contact with Dylan’s eldest son, Jesse, and was directed not to use the word “genius” or the term “voice of a generation.” Dylan notoriously chafes at those definitions and seems only comfortable with one: musician. To this day, he has rarely moved beyond his gift and continues to make albums and play concerts; it is the only thing he ever felt comfortable doing.
Haynes wanted to make a movie about the different identities Dylan either created himself or were created by an eager public in an attempt to put someone they never really understood in a kind of box they could understand. To tell his story, he and co-writer Oren Moverman went at it in a very unconventional way, much more like a Dylan song than any traditional narrative.
The film is a living painting or moving poem that is alternately funny, depressing, sad, and jubilant, and always with the throughline of Dylan’s own words and music sometimes explaining what was happening on screen, other times contradicting it. Take it from a Dylanologist, Haynes and Moverman have gotten it 100 percent right without having to lean on real names or real events or even any facts; it’s a subjective, abstract rendering of Dylan as seen through the eyes of the media, the fans, pop culture, and his family.
The film weaves in and out of the various identities we all know so well: he was Woody Guthrie, he was a folk singer, he went electric, he was a mad genius, he turned into Johnny Cash and changed his voice, he found Christ and renounced his Judaism, he turned back to Judaism. To tell this story in a linear fashion would be a ludicrous film full of funny outfits and bad wigs. Haynes does it differently; it is as if he goes inside the music and digs out the symbolism.
Cate Blanchett steals the show as the angry, amped up Dylan back when he filmed the D.A. Pennebaker documentary, Don’t Look Back. In that film, Dylan is so thin he’s practically a streak of ink on a grey canvas with a wild afro, chain smoking, hurling insults, and surrounded by groupies and sycophants. He cruelly takes apart reporters and has no time for admirers who probe him for deeper meanings of his songs. He couldn’t be any meaner, but when he takes to the stage and he starts singing, it all goes to another level. He is a gifted genius, no doubt, even if he hates the word.
Blanchett nails Dylan and transcends mere impersonation. It was a brilliant move to cast this particular woman as that particular Dylan because he was so frail, so female-looking during that time – she not only looks like him but she captures his mannerisms, his speech pattern, and above all, his attitude. She is so good that it threatens to throw the film off balance because her part is the most exciting. This will be especially so for people who don’t know Dylan’s story from A to Z. To those of you who do know his story, you will lap up every bit and want to lick the bowl afterwards. I’m Not There is the most accomplished and thrilling cinema of the year.