Dylan writ vain but vulnerable

I'm Not There: 135 minutes. Rated: M. Director: Todd Haynes. Starring: Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Marcus Carl Franklin, Richard Gere, Heath Ledger, Ben Whishaw, Michelle Williams

I'm Not There A confession: I care nothing for Bob Dylan, for his music or his legend; or for the miles of print and celluloid previously devoted to decoding his lyrics and his life. But this is one strange engrossing biopic. It's a film of such daring originality that it will manage to sustain the interest of fans and non-fans alike — though of course the fans will be rewarded most richly.

Much has been made of Dylan's chameleon quality, his ability to evade categorisation as he's morphed from Jewish Minnesota lad to Greenwich Village folk singer, to the voice of the '60s protest movement, rebellious rocker, and finally, emerging as the eternally-touring musical icon. Along the way Dylan's also acted in films, spent time as a recluse, married and divorced twice, and become a born-again Christian.

Perhaps it's only logical then, that writer-director Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven) has chosen to use six different actors, including one woman and a pre-pubescent African American boy, to portray this kaleidoscopic and inconsistent life. The gifted black boy (Franklin), who claims to be Woody Guthrie, hitches rides on freight trains and carries his banjo on his back.

Then there's charismatic folk singer Jack (Bale) who is later reincarnated as a singing preacher with '70s sideburns. In a seemingly parallel universe there's superstar actor Robbie (Ledger) living out a suburban tragedy with his wife (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and their two daughters. And, in the film's worst misstep, there's an ageing 'Billy the Kid' (Richard Gere) hiding out from Pat Garrett in sepia-toned Hicksville.

The most recognisable Dylan however, is the drug-nervy waifish superstar Jude, played with breathtaking skill by Cate Blanchett. This Dylan mumbles a mix of profundity and mundanity, and flirts with an Edie Sedgwick lookalike (Michelle Williams). He's caught rolling around in the grass with the Beatles, and waving at Allen Ginsberg, but he's run from a BBC journalist who's constantly attempting to interview him.

This Dylan is infuriating. Hollow, vain and abusive. But also vulnerable and pitiable; an angry animal pacing his cage.

Filmed with Dylan's blessing — and full access to his music — I'm Not There is a playful patchwork of styles and stories that almost always hangs together. As a comment on art, fame and celebrity in the 20th century it's sly and illuminating.

As a comment on Dylan himself, well, the title says it all. He's not there. But what does it say about us that we keep so desperately looking for him? All we can ever grab hold of is his music, and, whether you like it or not, that endures.

Rochelle SiemienowiczRochelle Siemienowicz is the films editor for The Big Issue Australia. She has a PhD in Philosophy and Cultural Inquiry with a focus on Australian cinema and globalisation. Rochelle blogs at www.itsbetterinthedark.blogspot.com.




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