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TODD HAYNES’ DYLAN FILM: FIRST VIEW; FIRST THOUGHTS!

Catecrop I’m Not There – Todd Haynes’ Bob Dylan biopic in which the singer is portrayed by six very different actors (including Cate Blanchett and an eleven year old African American boy) – received its first UK press screening on Monday. Andrew Male was there and he thinks he’s finally figured out what to say about it. Bear with him, his head still hurts…

Click MORE for full I’m Not There mindsplurge!

Firstly, apologies for the delay. Your MOJO correspondent was at the first UK screening of Todd Haynes’ (not a) Bob Dylan film, I’m Not There, on Monday but it’s only now that I’ve finally been able to get my head around exactly what I saw.

Given that the Californian director’s previous rock biopics have included 1998’s divisive Velvet Goldmine (featuring a veiled Ziggy-era Bowie, and shot to resemble the missing link between Stardust and Flame) and 1987’s Superstar (in which Karen Carpenter’s tragic life was re-enacted with Barbie dolls) it was inevitable that Haynes would want to play around with form, content and the boring old truth in his depiction of Dylan’s long, strange life. But after Haynes received Bob’s blessings (via manager Jeff Rosen), with instructions to “[not] even think about accurate and careful! This is your own weird interpretation”, Haynes evidently dived off into the deep end of Dylanesque obfuscation and myth.

Fully aware that the rites-of-passage clichés of the standard rock biopic could not apply to Dylan, I’m Not There introduces us to six different versions of the singer, none of whom are called Bob Dylan; six different actors inhabiting very different film worlds that depict various aspects of Dylan’s life and career. ’60s Dylan is handled by four actors with Marcus Carl Franklin playing “Woody”, a tale-spinning 11-year-old black kid who thinks he’s living in the 1930s and Christian Bale furrowing his brow for “Jack”, a humourless protest singer who becomes an ’80s church preacher. The fame-addled ’60s Dylan is divided in two with young British actor Ben Whishaw playing “Arthur”, a Rimbaud obsessive subjected to a Kafka-esque trial-by-press, and Cate Blanchett turning in the performance of her career as “Jude”, the electric Dylan of ’65. Perhaps unsurprisingly, post-’60s Dylan rests on the shoulders of just two actors. An oddly terrifying Heath Ledger is the cold-eyed two-timing ’70s film actor “Robbie”, undergoing a messy divorce, while Richard Gere is “Billy”, the latterday Dylan rendered as a retired lonesome cowboy.

If these Dr Who-style regenerations weren’t enough of a smoke screen, Haynes confounds further by locating each “Dylan” in “his” own film world none of which hold hard to the pesky truth; so “Woody”, rides the rails through a Taylor Hackford/Ray style biopic, “Jack”’s life is dissected in a lumpy ’80s rock-doc, “Robbie”’s world resembles the Kristofferson/Streisand 1976 remake of A Star is Born and, most effectively, “Jude” unravels in a black and white deep-focus nightmare born of Fellini’s 8 1/2 and Orson Welles’ The Trial, the events of Newport ’65, and the UK tours of ’65 and ’66 cut-up, shuffled and repeated to evoke the worst kind of amphetamined art-house flu dream.

Unsurprisingly, these are the scenes that are still with me two days later: Blanchett’s vicious, paranoid and beautifully wired Jude floundering in white rooms, like some twitching black spider dispensing venom as “he” edges ever closer to some kind of death. It’s a performance that walks a tightrope between power and cliché and it’s hard to say whether this shift into cartoon Dylan is intentional or not, direction or accident, and therein lies the problem with the film.

I’m Not There is so mannered, arch and cubist that whatever problem you have with the film’s performances or verisimilitude, you can equally hear Haynes arguing that “I meant to do that all along” and that to question it is show that you just don’t understand the film.

Like Richard Brautigan’s 1976 novel Sombrero Fallout, in which the author’s discarded short story takes on a life of its own in the wastepaper bin, I’m Not There is a version of the Dylan story where facts have intertwined with rumour, lyrics and myth and created a new organic truth certain to piss off any passing Dylan nerds, rock historians or angry movie bloggers. Which would be fine, except for the fact that certain sections of the film are undeniably more successful than others in conjuring up that alternate reality. In fact, by the time we encounter the final, oldest Dylan, the film has ground to a halt. Richard Gere’s “Billy” is the pre-Time Out Of Mind Dylan, hiding out from the cruel modern world in a landscape born of Peckinpah westerns, the Rolling Thunder Revue and *World Gone Wrong. It’s a terrific idea and Gere’s performance is suitably rheumy-eyed and wistful but Haynes elects to present this “old weird America” as some kind of TV western backlot populated by surrealist clichés (dwarves, circus animals, toothless old men) but with no discernible narrative with which to drive events. Sure, this too could be intentional – an attempt to cinematically recreate the tedium of Dylan’s ’80s and ’90s doldrums, perhaps? – but the suspicion is that Haynes just hasn’t got the skills to pull off yet another clever idea and it sure is a drag to watch. As a result, despite or because of the film’s significant high points and Blanchett’s career defining performance, I’m Not There remains oddly soulless, the constant shifting between characters and styles resulting in a film that lacks a true centre and, as a result, a heart. Which, you could argue, is a bit like Dylan really… Oh confound you, Todd Haynes!

The rather fascinating I’m Not There is released on December 21 (TBC).

Here’s the trailer again, if you missed it...

...Or go here for as much Eat The Document as we've ever seen. Will someone just bloody release this and put us out of our misery?

Posted by Danny Eccleston at 02:30PM