I'm Not There Review
This review is posted simultaneously with that of the Region 1 edition of I'm Not There. The opening section is the same. Go to “The DVD” for discussion specific to this release.
The premise of I'm Not There is already well known. “Inspired by the many lives of Bob Dylan”, as the credit puts it, Haynes uses six actors to play six aspects of Dylan, a man who – the film demonstrates – refuses to be pinned down, and who has many times changed persona and style. In modern popular music, maybe only David Bowie rivals him as a chameleon. Those six actors include an eleven-year-old black boy (Marcus Carl Franklin) and a woman (Cate Blanchett) who paradoxically bears the strongest resemblance to the real Dylan of all of them. As befits the title, Dylan himself is not mentioned, and (music apart) only appears in a brief snippet of concert footage at the end.
Haynes studied semiotics at University, and throughout his filmmaking career form and content have been inseparable, From the early use of Barbie Dolls in the suppressed Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, via the mash-up of three genres and visual styles in Poison to the heightened Douglas-Sirkian colours of Far From Heaven. Here, with six leading characters, Haynes and his DP Ed Lachman use a different visual style for each one, mixing colour and black and white, 35mm (Super 35) and 16mm. Visually, the film is a tour de force.
I'm Not There is a long film, and it's a dense one, filled with so many allusions to Dylan's life and career that it would take a dedicated Dylanologist to unpick them all. Hence the value of the DVD supplements: I'm on my third viewing (once with commentary) and I'm a long way from exhausting this film. However, I suspect there is a target audience for a film like this and I'm part of it: I'm an admirer of Haynes's other work and I'm not unsympathetic to his use of non-naturalistic devices in his films. Also, I've been listening to Dylan for some twenty-five years, beginning with borrowing tapes (remember them?) of Blonde on Blonde and Highway 61 Revisited from a schoolfriend when I was in the sixth form. If you find Dylan's best songs endlessly fascinating, as I do – and not just the surreal ones from the mid-60s, but the pared-down ones of John Wesley Harding (a very low-key album that anticipated country rock), or his second purple patch in the mid-70s, spurred by his marriage breakup (Blood on the Tracks, Desire). Or you could even investigate his Christian period or the rather underrated 80s albums such as Infidels or more recent work such as Time Out of Mind or Oh Mercy. It's not a controversial position to regard Dylan as one of the single most important figures in Western popular culture in the last fifty years, and a man whose lyrics expanded the vocabulary of songs considerably, and it's one I would agree with.
If on the other hand you don't agree, you will wonder what the point of I'm Not There is and search in vain for a plot in the conventional sense. Individual performances stand out. Blanchett has had the most praise, as “Jude”, the trickster hipster Dylan, forever fencing with interviewers but losing touch with himself, and it's praise well deserved. Young Marcus Carl Franklin steals the early part of the film as “Woody”, the self-mythologising Dylan, seen riding the railroads and playing the blues with his elders (Ritchie Havens among them). Heath Ledger is effective as “Robbie”, an actor playing Dylan, whose marriage breakup (with Charlotte Gainsbourg) parallels Dylan's. Christian Bale plays two roles, as Jack, the Dylan who outraged the folk-music establishment by going electric, and “Pastor John”, the Dylan who later found evangelical Christianity. Less effective are Benjamin Whishaw as “Arthur” (as in Rimbaud) and Richard Gere who is rather blank as “Billy”, the John Wesley Harding era Dylan, who went back to the country, and whose scenes are filmed like a Western by Haynes and Lachman. Julianne Moore shows up as the woman in Jack's wife, a character modelled on Joan Baez.
I'm Not There is a very ambitious film, and I'm not convinced it all comes off. You could argue that – the Ledger/Gainsbourg scenes apart (and this may simply be in hindsight due to Ledger's untimely death) – its cleverness doesn't really touch the heart. It's certainly not for those looking for a conventional biopic, if such a thing were possible for someone like Dylan. It's certainly not a film that you can easily grasp but it's good to see that adventurous films like this can still be made and find an audience.
This review is of the UK release of I'm Not There from Paramount. This comprises a single DVD-9, encoded for Region 2 only.
Shown in cinemas in Scope, I'm Not There has an anamorphic transfer in the ratio of 2.40:1. Given the variety of filmstocks used, the DVD copes extremely well. Some sequences are intentionally grainy – such as the opening subjective-camera Steadicam shot from the dressing room to the stage, and much of the opening credit sequence – but that's how they looked in the cinema. The different hues and saturations of the colour sequences are accurate as well. Having compared this to the Region 2 release I would not be surprised if both transfers are derived from the same source: the chapter stops (thirty-four of them) are in the same places, for one. The Region 2 disc has PAL speed-up though.
The soundtrack is in Dolby Digital 5.1, but this isn't the most elaborate of sound mixes – mainly monophonic with the music using the surrounds. Subtitles are available in English (dialogue-only and hard-of-hearing variants). Also accessible from the subtitle menu is the option to view the film with on-screen song lyrics. The extras are all subtitled including the commentary.
The first extra is a commentary from Todd Haynes. It's a valuable adjunct to the film itself, as it points out references and sources that anyone short of a hardcore Dylanologist would be unlikely to spot. In the same spirit are four text pieces grouped on the menu as “Intro to Dylan”. “Who's Not There: Six Faces of Dylan” and “Decoding an Entertaining Enigma” are unsigned pieces, the first describing each of the six main characters, the second serving as a synopsis. Also included are two essays, “Tangled Up in Clues” by Ann Powers and “Notes on I'm Not There” by Greil Marcus.
Next up is “A Conversation with Todd Haynes” (40:50). Or rather, that's several conversations with Todd Haynes, interviews and Q&A sessions both, cut together. As with the commentary, this is very informative. Haynes clearly knew what he was doing, whatever you make of the result. He also lets slip the observation that Charlotte Gainsbourg's presence on set made him wish he was straight!
“Making the Soundtrack” (20:15) is a look at the recording and construction of the musical soundtrack, which unusually was recorded before the film was shot, instead of afterwards as is almost always the case.
Also included is a short tribute to the late Heath Ledger (3:09), a collection of clips from the film and from the set, cut to Dylan's “Tomorrow is a Long Time”. It's inevitably very sad to watch, even more so with the music added. (The dialogue has subtitles available, but not the song lyrics.)
“Dylanography” is a grouping of six stills galleries (one per actor), and a Dylan discography, bibliography and chronology.
The Region 1 release (reviewed simultaneously to this one) contains is a two-disc collector's edition and so contains more extras, though I'd suggest most of the vital ones are on Paramount's single DVD. Given the importance of music to this film, some may prefer an NTSC version to a sped-up PAL version. Otherwise it's pretty much a draw and the usual factors of region coding, availability and price will no doubt decide it.
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