Smile Politely

The Freewheelin’ Biopic

The execution of a vision is the thing that breaks or makes a film. The more vast and imaginative the vision, the harder it is to see realized. But in the case of director Todd Haynes’s latest film, I’m Not There, a courageous vision was well worth the effort thanks to an amazing cast, a well-plotted set of vignettes, and a figure worthy of such an ambitious picture.

I’m Not There doesn’t dispel myths about Bob Dylan—it casts the legend’s character into further mystery. We never see beyond the mask of collected cool, only catching glints in the performances of six different actors portraying six different angles of the man under six different names. Through these personas, Dylan is shown as a naive dreamer, an unwilling hero, a joke of a father, a jaded know-it-all, a purveyor of change, and a social outlaw. The film places him on a pedestal as a god of wit and wisdom while displaying his flawed personality and hypocrisies. It’s innovation as a biopic puts to shame films like Ray and Walk the Line, choosing to fill out the life and times of the man in metaphor other than giving us a straight-forward story we’ve heard a million times over.

Through both grainy black and white and color, the film takes us on a non-linear journey along the purported career of the folk hero. There are flashes of nostalgia, but mostly moments of tongue-in-cheek truths. As an 11-year-old African American boy, played by Marcus Carl Franklin with cool adult ease, he is a boxcar hobo calling himself Woody Guthrie, on a mission to make it big, maybe even Elvis big. Cate Blanchett is the doppelganger Jude Quinn, a megastar crucified by critics and fans alike who’d rather he stick with “his early stuff.” Arthur Rimbaud (Ben Whishaw) seems to be in an interrogation room, having to own up to the sins a creative genius brings upon himself. Christian Bale as Jack Rollins plays both the public disgrace and the born-again. Heath Ledger’s Robbie Clark cares more about his acting career than his family and discovers too late the price his lifestyle has paid. And then there’s Richard Gere as an old Billy the Kid, having escaped Pat Garrett’s bullets, but not his outlaw past.

Yes, the story is daunting when you realize these bits all reflect one man, but in the watching of it, we are led on separate journeys, each leading to its own ending. We are left to think what we will of the man, though it’s clear the director is not afraid to bow to the musician in reverie. Each performance brings its own weight and is equally compelling, though Blanchett’s portrayal has stolen the spotlight with deserving award nominations.

Though as a whole, the separate storylines worked to create a thorough picture of one man, at least one perspective went overboard in the opinion of this reviewer. The dichotomy in question is attached to one of the best performances in the film, that of Christian Bale. Julianne Moore is interviewed about Bale’s character in such a style too reminiscent of a VH1 Behind the Music special. Still images and newsy footage come off as satire in a manner that goes completely against the tone of the rest of the picture. Reproducing famous images of Dylan didn’t work in this segment, coming off more like a scene from Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story than a genuine intention.

Never is Bob Dylan’s actual name uttered in the film. He is not there, but his essence bleeds through six spellbinding performances and a world that could only come from a lyric in his songs. Myth and metaphor are swapped seamlessly, shrouding the man in mystique, and the film doesn’t ask us to forgive Dylan his shortcomings, but beckons us to embrace his legend.

Opens tomorrow at Boardman’s Art Theatre
Runtime: 2h 25min – Rated R – Drama

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