Monday, November 26, 2007

Movie Review: I'm Not There

Todd Haynes has come a long way in 20 years. Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, his 1987 biopic about the late singer, starred Barbie dolls and featured music that Haynes failed to secure the rights to. (Not surprisingly, the film still cannot be screened legally.) Since, the director has made movies that have been good (2002's Far From Heaven), bad (1991's Poison, 1995's Safe) and ugly (1998's Velvet Goldmine), but at the very least, all of them are original and have proven that Haynes has a style and vision all his own. He now returns to the unconventional-rock-biopic game with I'm Not There, though this time he has an A-list cast (Cate Blanchett, Christian Bale, Richard Gere, Heath Ledger and others) and a better grasp of the phrase "copyright infringement." I'm Not There features six different actors -- the four mentioned above, plus Marcus Carl Franklin and Ben Whishaw -- playing Bob Dylan (though none is actually named Bob Dylan), and while this conceit might sound like Haynes is just trying to be weird because he can be, that's not the case at all. The real Dylan is an enigma, an artist who's played so many characters over his 45-year career that his fans have no idea who he really is. A straight-forward biopic (a la Walk The Line or Ray) about Dylan would be a disservice to everybody. Instead, Haynes intertwines -- and names -- seven periods of the musician's life: "poet" (Whishaw), "prophet" (Bale), "outlaw" (Gere), "fake" (Franklin), "star of electricity" (Blanchett), "rock 'n' roll martyr" (Ledger) and "born-again Christian" (Bale again). Haynes tells the story out of order, stretches the truth, makes stuff up and generally manipulates things as he sees fit, and the result is a heady collage that perfectly captures all that's good (and bad) about Dylan and his music. It's a beautiful mess, and I wouldn't change a thing about it. The six main actors are all great, especially Blanchett (whose channeling of Dylan is absolutely astonishing) and Franklin (a young black child who brings an amazing depth to his character), but Haynes is the real star here. Some of the visuals he adds to Dylan's music are capable of changing the way you hear songs you've known most of your life. But I'm Not There's real feat is that somehow Haynes made one of the most mysterious and iconic figures of the 20th century absolutely human. And I can't remember the last time I saw a biopic that came close to doing that.

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