The BFI London film festival chose this year to combine its Gala with the premier of the movie that has people all a quiver with talk of Oscars and Cate Blanchett’s strapped down breasts. The film is Todd Hayne’s much-anticipated biopic of Bob Dylan, ‘I’m Not There’. This film goes far beyond traditional biographical territory and, instead of chronicling his career, really attacks the question of who Dylan is and, refreshingly, seems unafraid to admit that we don’t really know.
This is not, however, a film for those interested in an intimate portrait of Dylan’s life, the film does not actually have any character called ‘Bob Dylan’. Even Blanchett’s Quinn is never presented as a full representation of Dylan. Instead Hayne attempts to create in each of his seven ‘Dylan’ characters, some aspect of the artist. We are given a young boy claiming to be Woody Guthrie and a folk icon speaking for a generation.
We are given an iconoclast and a cad, an ambiguous poet, a born again Christian and a man with no name. And each one speaks to some aspect of Dylan. But the point that is made by the film is that all of these personas are projections that we in the outside world force upon Dylan and are therefore incomplete.
The Quinn character becomes a voice for the frustration of a man who is constantly being bound by his own creations, having risen to fame as a the prophet of protest, Quinn is seen turning guns upon his adoring fans in Hayne’s attempt to demonstrate to a modern audience just what it was when Dylan took to the stage at the Newport Festival and ‘went electric’. It unleashed the bile and derision of all those who had exalted him, who felt genuine betrayal at his ‘selling out’. The Quinn character displays the obtuseness of Dylan in the post-electric age and the film seems to touch upon issues of artistic invention.
Dylan the artist gives his creations to the world and in turn the world seeks to gain ownership of him stopping him from making progress or saying anything new, the character of the poet comes to say “Never create anything, it will chain you and follow you. It will never change.” But of course the real message of this film is that Dylan is not and has never been bound by anything or anyone. He has always managed to break free from the constraints that other people have placed upon him. Just when you think you have him pinned down, he’s not there.
Speaking after the screening Christian Bale notes a kind of “enjoyable confusion” in the film making process and this does hit upon a weakness of the film, the multiple characters can cause disorientation and certain threads seem underdeveloped, despite the fact that the film is 135 minutes long. Also in Hayne’s conscious decision to reference the 1960s ‘head flicks’ he occasionally borders on El Topo-esque madness.
The film is certainly not for those who aren’t fans of seeking out subtext or for that matter people who like linear storytelling. But this film has more to enjoy than criticise and will no doubt satiate the Dylan geek for whom Haynes has inserted hundreds of subtle references. The acting is impressive with each actor turning in stellar performances. The soundtrack too is a delight, utilising not just the recognisable tracks but also Dylan’s lesser known songs.
This feels like one of the more honest biopics of recent years and it does that by admitting that a person can never be fully communicated and so a spirit or idea can sometimes be more informative to a character than a dispassionate chronicle of a persons dealings. For the right viewer, this film has the potential to be most enjoyable.