I'm Not There


by Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

This is the much-discussed film in which six different people play Bob Dylan, although none of the characters are actually named Bob Dylan. As the title suggests, Bob Dylan is not a character in own biography. It's easy enough to see what writer/director Todd Haynes is driving at with that gimmick. As we look back upon the entertainers who have populated the stage of pop culture in the lives of the baby boomers, some people have never changed. Paul McCartney, who has been in the spotlight about as long as Dylan, always seems to be the same person: approachable, sentimental, sometimes prickly but never confrontational, a man not especially interested in discussing politics or history. That was Lennon's bag. One person could play Paul in his biopic. But Bob Dylan? Well, he's the mystery tramp.

  • He's the Jewish Minnesotan preppie who incongruously styled himself as Woody Guthrie, although it was the late 1950s, and Woody's songs about the depression and riding the rails seemed curiously dated.
  • He's the Greenwich Village folkie who partnered with Joan Baez to create some of the greatest finger-pointing songs of that era, and wrote the very best neo-folk music to go with the traditional ballads which were popular with the beatnik crowd.
  • He's the rock star who shocked the 1965 Newport Jazz festival with an electric set which, according to (debunked) legend, caused folk legend Pete Seeger to take an axe to the power supply for Dylan's amps. That version of Dylan ended up hanging out with Edie Sedgwick and the Warhol crowd, although Dylan always maintained an ironic distance from those people.
  • He's the country and western star who wrote simple shit-kicker love songs and sang duets with Johnny Cash.
  • He's the idealistic young husband and father who, together with his wife Sara, was going to be an experimental filmmaker.

And so forth. He had other avatars as well, but you all probably know as much or more about him as I do, so there's no need for me to elaborate.

The film's structural mistake is not in having Dylan portrayed as many different fictional characters with different names, but in the fact that one of the six (the poet Rimbaud, played by Ben Whishaw) is utterly superfluous and unnecessary to the film, and that another (Dylan's character in Billy the Kid, as played by Richard Gere) is so far afield from the rest of the film that all the scenes involving that character grind the film to a halt. Gere's scenes sort of take place in the Old West and sort of take place now, kind of like the scenes involving the murder of the contemporary historian in Python and the Holy Grail.

The rest of the film, however, works better than it has any right to.

  • Dylan as a young boy is actually portrayed as an 11-year-old, African-American, left-handed guitarist named Woody Guthrie. That sounds odd, but those scenes capture the essence of Dylan in that era. He was just a guy lost in time, trying to find the portal to his own era.
  • The folkie, who later comes back as a folk/gospel singer, is played by Christian Bale, doing a pretty straightforward impersonation of the awkward Dylan of that era.
  • The cultural icon is played by Cate Blanchett, doing a pretty straightforward impersonation of the constantly opague and baffling Dylan of that time, centering on his contentious relationships with the press and his former folk colleagues.
  • The failed husband and filmmaker, in the most poignant portion of the film, is played by Keith Ledger. Ledger doesn't really try to capture any aspect of Dylan seen by the public, but rather to create a vision of how Dylan then thought his life should have worked out, and why it didn't really go as planned.

That's three of the best actors in the world, matched beat for beat by the little kid trying to be Woody Guthrie, who is the real revelation of the film. In fact, I think that every single scene with the little kid worked, and I especially enjoyed a number he played with the legendary Richie Havens, whose distinctive voice echoes through the years. The scenes with Heath Ledger and Charlotte Gainsbourg playing the Bob and Sara characters, aka Renaldo and Clara, also got to me. Dylan is not the only guy from my generation who managed to succeed in many ways while failing at the things that should have been most important, and this portion of the story speaks clearly to the failings of many baby boomers who were Dylan's fans.

Including me.

I'm Not There is certainly not a standard Hollywood biopic, and it is not going to draw a mass audience. It can be rambling, boring, experimental, pretentious, pseudo-arty and unfocused, and it lacks a coherent narrative line. I normally hate a film like that, and you would think I would hate this one even more than usual because two of the six characters just didn't work. But I didn't hate it at all. A lot of things work in this film. In addition to the fine performances and sporadically interesting script, the film illustrates the many sides of Dylan with long excerpts (not snippets) from the many different styles of music created by each of the various men Dylan was or was pretending to in the various stages of his life. When I'm Not There gets in stride it can be evocative, entertaining, and painfully close to the bone. Unlike most "arty" films, it is also genuine art. I would have preferred it shorter, but when the film does hit the mark, it gets inside the subject's skin in a way no typical biopic could achieve.


* Info not yet available.







Cate Blanchett received numerous nominations and awards for her performance.

3.5 Roger Ebert (of 4 stars)
80 Rotten Tomatoes  (% positive)
73 Metacritic.com (of 100)






7.9 IMDB summary (of 10)





Box Office Mojo. $2.4 million. Arthouse distribution. It has never reached more than 148 theaters at a time.






  • Heath Ledger does full-frontal nudity.
  • Charlotte Gainsbourg shows her breasts  fleetingly in a long musical montage




Web www.scoopy.com

Our Grade:

If you are not familiar with our grading system, you need to read the explanation, because the grading is not linear. For example, by our definition, a C is solid and a C+ is a VERY good movie. There are very few Bs and As. Based on our descriptive system, this film is a:


Student filmmaking with major stars and a real budget. And yet it usually works. I would have rated it higher, but the Richard Gere scenes fail miserably, despite a good effort from Gere himself.