I'm Not There
14/01/08 19:07 Filed in: Films
When I was 11 years old a VHS tape was released called Rolling Stone Presents Twenty Years of Rock and Roll. It was a 90-minute documentary, presented by Dennis Hopper, touching on most of the major musical figures that had ruled the world since Rolling Stone's inception in 1967. It was a visual lesson in popular culture handed down to me from parents who had already exposed me to music since birth - in fact, in utero, since my first gig was Little Feat in 1976 three months before birth. My parents have been curators of my musical education ever since. They are not the only people I listen to regarding music of course but they are my first port of call, even now.
In 1966 my dad attended the famed 'Judas' concert. He was 15 years old and saw the truth in front of him as Bob Dylan snarled 'Play it fucking loud' to his Band; years later this iconic footage was discovered and shown in Scorsese's definitive Dylan documentary No Direction Home. Now the definitive movie about Dylan has been made. As an 11 year old, I watched and re-watched that Rolling Stone video until it was worn out. It was responsible for my first visual sightings of artists I have since become devoted to - Beatles, Stones, Doors, Zeppelin, Bowie, Joni, Hendrix, Prince, Neil Young, U2 and more. Without fail, I have grown to love almost every artist featured in that tape.
Half way through it came the moment my musical life changed forever. In the middle of a section about increasing commercialism in music, the new power of record companies and the bloated self-indulgence of supergroups like the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac comes a cheeky piece of Hopper narration - "In the mid 70s, Dylan went his own way as usual". The screen flickered into a live clip I later found out was from 76's sprawling Renaldo and Clara (partially filmed during the '75 Rolling Thunder Revue tour). His face filled the screen, his sloping Jewish nose, the white paint (clearly a reference to shallow Kiss-style rock) covering his face, his sparkling green eyes, a wide brimmed hat and the voice -
Early one mornin' the sun was shinin',
I was layin' in bed
Wond'rin' if she'd changed at all
If her hair was still red.
Her folks they said our lives together
Sure was gonna be rough
They never did like Mama's homemade dress
Papa's bankbook wasn't big enough.
And I was standin' on the side of the road
Rain fallin' on my shoes
Heading out for the East Coast
Lord knows I've paid some dues gettin' through,
Tangled up in blue.
She was married when we first met
Soon to be divorced
I helped her out of a jam, I guess,
But I used a little too much force.
We drove that car as far as we could
Abandoned it out West
Split up on a dark sad night
Both agreeing it was best.
She turned around to look at me
As I was walkin' away
I heard her say over my shoulder,
"We'll meet again someday on the avenue,"
Tangled up in blue.
Two verses only, that's all it took to mesmerise that 11 year old. I couldn't hope to understand all he was but I hoped to learn, to try and delve further. Now 20 years later I see that not understanding completely, not being able to pin down exactly what or who he is is central to everything. That's the tack taken by I'm Not There, the new Todd Haynes film. By accepting that you cannot understand Dylan, you gain a great paradoxical understanding of the whole. Dylan once said that he has always been 'in the process of becoming'. Haynes takes that and creates a fantastical, but sometimes accurate, approach and weaves a tale unlike I've ever seen in a film.
I saw I'm Not There at Xmas, with my dad and his best friend, a rabid Santana fan. Without realising, we were booked into a subtitled screening. It was distracting yet helpful in many ways, especially when it came to the lyrics. Seeing them written on the screen enhanced their power even more. I saw the film again yesterday, sans subtitles this time. The power of the film had increased yet again and I expect that to continue upon subsequent viewings. The film is 'inspired by the music and many lives of Bob Dylan' and sure enough, not one of the actors present plays a character called Bob Dylan. The characters are composites of aspects of Dylan, his personality, his persona, his songs, his heroes and the strain felt by the expectations placed on him hovers over all proceedings.
Marcus Carl Franklin, a young black boy, plays Woody Guthrie. He represents the faker - the Dylan who told interviewers he ran away to join the circus when in fact he was having his bar mitzvah. In the film, Woody visits the real Woody Guthrie in hospital, something young Dylan did too. He's seen as a cute runaway, shilling the rubes with charm when he can get away with it. Christian Bale plays Jack Rollins, the Greenwich Village folk troubadour version of Dylan from 62-65 and then the Jesus loving Bob of the late 70s. Heath Ledger plays Robbie Clark, an actor who played Jack Rollins in a biopic but was taken over by the attention it brought - this character comes close to being 'family' Dylan, with his wife, the Sara (Dylan's ex-wife and the inspiration for Blood on the Tracks) of the piece, played by a delicate but resolute Charlotte Gainsbourg. He struggles with the balance of fame and family as his marriage crumbles and is portrayed as callous and self-absorbed.
Richard Gere, looking a touch too much like The Dude, plays Billy the Kid, as Dylan did in 70s western Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid. Ben Whishaw, a superb young English actor, appears talking to screen, facing possibly the draft board, and spouts the innocent, idealistic rhetoric of the 20 year old Bob in the name of Arthur Rimbaud.
Finally, in the flashiest portrayal, comes Cate Blanchett's twitchy, amphetamine-fueled Jude Quinn. The most recognisable of all the pieces of Zimmerman - corkscrew hair, shades, striped drainpipes, ever-present cigarette; in essence the Don't Look Back Dylan. The Newport Festival Dylan. The Judas concert Dylan. The Dylan under the most pressure, about to crack. Through the film, you realise that the weight on his shoulders would have been more than most could bear. While Dylan was not, by any means, the first musician to speak of social issues in songs, he was certainly the first pop star to do it. In a world of crooners and holding hands, his songs seared through the consciousness of young people on the cusp of a civil rights revolution and, as you might expect, that terrified the authority figures of the time. All the young men being drafted and the women watching them leave, who had been going to their deaths as part of the previously unarguable fate that befell generations before them, listened to this so-called protest singer with reverence. Dylan terrified the establishment, who had realised that a pop singer would and could have more influence on their children than any teacher, policeman, politician or parent.
As such, they set out to expose Dylan as a middle class mid-west faker who never believed in what he was saying - his abandonment of folk and embrace of electric instruments merely proved their point about the insincerity they were certain they saw in him. These detractors are created as a composite character - he's a journalist (Mr Jones, a manifestation of both the snooty English journalists in Don't Look Back and the eponymously named character in Ballad of a Thin Man) in the Quinn scenes and a sheriff in the Billy chapter (Pat Garrett, his famed nemesis) each time played by the same actor, the impeccable Bruce Greenwood.
Everyone wants something from these Dylan composites, more than they are owed. Those who dislike and fear him disrespect him. The fans expect too much; from the downcast folkies roaring their horror at electric Dylan (with a comic portrayal of the apocryphal Peter Yarrow story of chopping the power cables at Newport with an axe) to the wide-eyed teenagers seeing their Vietnam-scarred future as they glance desperately at him, hoping he'll show their path out. It's too much for one human being to cope with and the film splits him into the six distinct characters to recognise this. There is no Bob Dylan - he is a construct, a persona with many different aspects. In order to understand what is in front of you must accept that you can't understand him. You can absorb more from him if you deconstruct less. You must accept that, like the title, he isn't there.
It's one of the most audacious and ambitious films I've seen in a very long time. It was never going to be a Ray or Walk The Line. A piece like this allows each actor space to create their own version and vision of someone indefinable. In particular, Blanchett's Quinn is extraordinary. I expect her to be standing triumphantly on the Oscar podium soon because anything else would be a travesty. I am convinced that no other actor, male or female, could have inhabited this version of the man with such passion and knowledge. The music propels the film, as it should. The originals sit alongside covers by Tom Verlaine, My Morning Jacket's Jim James, Yo La Tengo, Stephen Malkmus, Calexico, Eddie Vedder and Antony and the Johnsons. Malkmus's wild mercury renditions of Ballad of a Thin Man and Maggie's Farm are worthy of particular praise.
I'm Not There is an overwhelming piece of work from first minute to last. For the first time you get a sense of the strength required to be Bob Dylan. A popular singer has never been more important, has never changed things so much and has never been required to be so saintly by the baying media hordes in order to be believed. It's impossible for one man to give as much as he is exhorted to give but no-one else was standing there on his level in the glare of the changing decade who had the ability, intelligence or vision to deliver. The establishment sensed cultural and political revolution and made Dylan their poster boy for it. And in a sense he was that figurehead since he fulfilled what both the journalists and his admirers wanted. They tried to tear him down but he is the one still left standing. He comes across as stubborn, dismissive, sometimes mean and sexist but above all he is unarguably a visionary, a great American icon but an imperfect person - with this film you feel Haynes has an understanding of Dylan I didn't think any filmmaker was capable of.