I'm Not There- a mixed Dylan overdose
Ideally, a Dylan movie is my idea of entertainment, combining two of my favorite obsessions. And Todd Haynes came up with a brilliant idea about how to do it- have several actors portray him not just in different times of his life but also different aspects of it and also have the group of "Dylans" include not just one race or gender. The latter is a tribute not just to the way that he speaks for or embodies so many people but also for his complex nature. And beyond the idea, I'm Not There is beautifully shot, with many scenes screaming out for a screen the size of which that most people couldn't fit in their homes.
But there's a difference between theory and practice and in the end, Haynes comes up with a mixed bag at best. The stories vary not just with the settings but also the actors. The bad ones include Christian Bale (an actor I usually love) as a John/Jack, a snotty, empty folkie who finds religion and Marcus Carl Franklin as a hobo named Woody Guthrie. For the latter, it's so much of race standing out as it is with age, being 11 years old and trying to cram old-man wisdom in his mouth where it just sounds weird or out-of-place- Haynes in fact gives up on the story early on in the film. Also, Ben Whishaw as the mid-60's Dylan doing his confrontation press conference pose is a waste because it's done better in another characterization in the film.
And there's the good scenes/characters. Heath Ledger plays an actor (who plays Bale's Jack character in a movie) plus a mid 70's persona who's insular and caustic to his friends and especially his wife, played wonderfully by Charlotte Gainsbourg, whose palpable suffering helps to add poignancy to the story. Though it's usually the part that's most reviled, I actually liked Richard Gere as Billy, a outlaw somewhat modeled after Sam Peckinpah's film Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (which Dylan himself co-starred in). But rather than just an an average Western, Haynes populates the scene with all sorts of weirdos and freaks that look like they spilled out a Fellini film but are also manifestations of Dylan's most imaginative 60's songs (especially the Basement Tapes). Gere's Dylan is a little stoic but also kind-hearted, open and defiant plus a pleasure to watch, especially when he tries to drink in a funeral scene in a gazebo where Calexico play "Going to Acapulco."
And then there's the role that they're already screaming "Oscar Nomination" about. Cate Blanchett is indeed very good as the scabrous, rascally Dylan (called "Jude" here) we've known in Don't Look Back, whether fending off reporters or playing around with Allen Ginsberg (David Cross), yelling at a Jesus statue "why don't you do your early material?!" Not only does she have a natural feel for the character much more than the others but she obviously has the most fun with it even when she's/he's being overwhelmed by a life that's spinning out of control (plus she makes Whishaw's scenes totally unnecessary, which makes you wonder why he's there in the first place).
Overall, part of the problem is what plagued Haynes' Velvet Goldmine, another mythic retelling of a rock tale. That film's hokeyness dragged it down and here, it's a problem too: famous lyrics get blurted out as actor's lines, ridiculous album covers imitating the original ones, fake interviews with friends (including a Kim Gordon cameo) that are as dry as a Christopher Guest movie but minus the uncomfortable humor. And except for Blanchett, the worst acting comes from the characters who try to crudely imitate the Dylan drawl too much (especially Bale and Whishaw).
I'd hesitate to recommend it to non-Dylan fans or just film-goers not familiar with his material or life, not just because they wouldn't get the references but also because it's a little spotty overall. For Dylan fans, they'd need to see it though some will surely grouse about rewritting history. Haynes freely admits in the opening credits that the film was "inspired by the many lives" of our hero. But the way that he plays fiction/non-fiction sometimes is a little gratuitous, especially when he makes out the Newport '65 audience to be only detractors (which they weren't). But in the end, this film remains an interesting and worthwhile experiment, albeit a mixed one.
As for the music, when Dylan himself is heard, his songs add something special to the scenes, especially the Blood on the Tracks material in Ledger's section (including a great, pained, organ-less version of "Idiot Wind"). The movie soundtrack itself is even more mixed than the movie, with many versions using identical arrangements as the originals, making you wonder why it was necessary to do the covers at all. There are a couple of good versions there (by Gainsborogh, Los Lobos, Hold Steady) and I love the line-up of artists (good indie rock line-up though I could do without Cat Power). But overall, I would just rather listen to a good Dylan compilation. I think it's pretty telling that his own song (the previously unreleased title song for the movie) which appears at the end pretty much outshines almost all of the covers before it.