As one who went into I'm Not There with very few preconceived notions of Bob Dylan, I wasn't sure what to expect. However, Todd Haynes (Velvet Goldmine), who wrote and directed the film, must have felt it was kismet when received a copy of Dylan's song that would become the film's title. The song, an unreleased number from Dylan's "Basement Tapes" with the Band, was a perfect fit for what Haynes wanted to accomplish in the film, which was to illustrate Dylan's ever-elusive personality and changes in appearance.
Haynes uses several different approaches in trying to pin down the iconic rock figure, beginning with an unconventional casting decision. No one person plays Dylan; rather, six different actors embody some of Dylan's more recognizable musical personae. Cate Blanchett (The Aviator) tackles the time when Dylan went electric; Richard Gere (Pretty Woman) plays his hand at Dylan's early '70s infatuation with Westerns; Christian Bale and Heath Ledger (The Dark Knight) undertake the born-again Dylan and Dylan as the undisciplined husband, respectively; and Ben Whishaw (Layer Cake) along with newcomer Marcus Carl Franklin (Be Kind Rewind) symbolize Dylan's influences, musically and philosophically. Occasionally some of their paths intersect (Ledger is essentially portraying Bale during the folk icon period in movies, the Franklin/Gere characters literally bump into each other in one scene, and Franklin appears as a separate character altogether), but they are separate story arcs in the film.
Despite the number of "Dylans," there are three predominant storylines; Bale is Jack Rollins, fondly recalled in performances and by friends like Alice Fabian (Julianne Moore, Boogie Nights), who's obviously channeling the film's version of Joan Baez. Jack grows disenchanted and starts preaching in a church as Pastor John, even growing a paunch and dealing with some thinning hair. While there is very little meat in the arc (the focus was mainly on Jack's aversion to his old music rather than his feelings for his new music), Bale handles this role rather well. The other Aussie (Ledger) plays the tragic arc with emotional resonance. He's married to Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg, Antichrist) with whom he has a couple of kids, so to see the birth of their relationship and eventual dissolution of their marriage is profound. It's not on-screen for long, but it was compelling and reminded me of Scenes From a Marriage in how things start idyllically but eventually disintegrate.
But the best character arc may be the third, which belongs to Blanchett as Jude Quinn, who deals with the ramifications of a report by Keenan Jones (Bruce Greenwood, Capote) that threatens to expose Jude's middle-class roots and invalidate the perceived working-class hero identity for which he was known. The interplay between Jude and Keenan is fascinating, but how Jude deals with the fan backlash of switching to plugged in guitars is the most interesting. His fans become resentful and turn their back on it, but Jude sees this perceived abandonment as a logical progression in his career. And because Blanchett handles Dylan's mannerisms so well, the explanations Jude provides are logical, if not what Dylan himself probably illustrated. And I get it. I get why Dylan wanted to change. Why become tied to one genre of music when you can make many other different, yet equally powerful experiences?
And how about the music? It is almost entirely composed of Dylan songs, including some of the originals, while others are imaginative covers. One sequence in which Billy (Gere) goes to a town square, the band Calexico, along with Jim James, sings a version of "Goin' to Acapulco" that knocks me out every time I see it. It leaves you feeling nostalgic, worn down by life, and James' really goes for it when he sings. It's a remarkable musical re-imagining. For a film with a soundtrack that includes covers by Sonic Youth, John Doe, The Hold Steady and others, that's an accomplishment.
However, here's a bigger question to be answered: when it comes to biopics, how does I'm Not There measure up? Is it a fresh new approach? In a career whose approach seems to be smaller, compartmentalized versions of itself, Haynes doesn't show us new information on Dylan, rather he shows us Dylan's created versions of himself, and within those versions, smaller motivations of the whole emerge. Was Dylan a poet, a prophet, an icon, a cowboy? Maybe he was a little bit of all of those things, but don't ask Dylan for an opinion. To paraphrase the song that the film is titled from, he's not there, he's gone.
The Blu-ray Disc:
Note: This BD-50 disc is available for sale in (and imported from) Australia and is compatible for playback in Regions A, B and C. Additionally, it can be played on a PS3 console.
I'm Not There arrives to Blu-ray in a 2.35:1 1080p high-definition presentation using the AVC MPEG-4 codec. Haynes worked with cinematographer Edward Lachman on Far From Heaven and each appears to know the other's shorthand. Haynes incorporates a wide variety of colors in the film's palette, and they're replicated accurately. The black and white shots possess film grain that's present though not distracting, and in the Gere sequences, the forests have a vivid shade of green and many times contain an impressive level of background depth. There are intermittent moments of image softness, but it's an upgrade over the standard-definition copy.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 lossless track gets the job done, albeit in an quietly effective manner. The songs sound excellent and have a dynamic soundstage with low-end involvement that doesn't overpower the song. Dialogue the sounds strong and balanced in the center channel, and there is quite a bit of directional activity. The result is an immersive sound experience with some clever speaker utilization, and I liked the work. A Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track is the only other sound option.
Almost everything from the two-disc standard definition Collector's Edition is brought over to this Blu-ray release, and that's a good thing; this is loaded. Haynes' commentary track is outstanding; covering the shot intentions, providing scene breakdowns and discussing how some of those scenes reflect on Dylan's life. The recollections about the production are touched on, and his memories of working with Ledger are poignant. If you're even remotely interested in the film, you owe it to yourself to listen to the commentary.
Next up is a Q&A with Haynes (15:32), in which he talks more about his inspirations for making the film and some more production-specific items, along with how the film portrays Dylan's life. The famed "Subterranean Homesick Blues" video is next, where you can choose from a long or short version of the mix, as well as the individual cast member videos. A making of the film follows (15:17), which examines the production and Haynes work in it. Two deleted scenes are next (2:03), but they're boring, however the four extended/alternate scenes (18:29) are a mix of musical performances and a couple of acting pieces, and are much more worthwhile. A montage to Ledger (3:07) set to a Dylan song is touching to see, while the gag reel (4:02) is a greatest hits of brief flubs and trips. More interview footage with Haynes ensues (40:48), culled from a variety of interview sources and includes more information and thoughts on the film from Haynes. Whatever he didn't cover before is covered here. Making the soundtrack (20:12) talks about how some of the movie's key songs were approached and features interviews with those who had a part in it. Two audition tapes (4:29) with Whishaw and Franklin are next, along with footage from the film's theatrical premiere (2:40). A stills gallery completes the disc, save for six postcards showing each of the "Dylans," and a '60s-era psychedelic painting of Dylan on a cardboard slipcover.
After I saw I'm Not There the first time, I felt compelled to buy some Dylan music and have since gained an appreciation for the artist. If that's what a musician's biography (or in this case a biopic) tries to accomplish, I'm sure it's a compliment. I was looking forward to the Blu-ray because of how the film looked and sounded, and I wasn't disappointed in the least. Those who want to purchase the disc should take into consideration the exchange rates when buying (Note: As of this writing, a UK disc has been announced for an October 2009 release, but this author is unfamiliar with technical specs or region locking). But it's a technical upgrade over the standard definition version, and worth having in your collection. Those who haven't seen the film should definitely go out and rent it to see what all the fuss is about.