The Union Forever | ‘I’m Not There’ DVD

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This past Tuesday, Todd Haynes’ film inspired by the music and many lives of Bob Dylan, I’m Not There, was released on DVD and I got a chance to relive the excellent experiment in narrative filmmaking. Not to mention a couple of hours of Dylan songs. Most of us know Dylan as everyone knows Dylan, as the freewheeling young man singing songs of protest and rock and roll, but for those who have been on the festival circuit long enough you also know Dylan the stage performer. This reclusive, re-worked songwriter is one of the least interactive people to still get sell out crowds. It can be frustrating to watch an entire concert where the man of the hour never looks once at the audience. But, this is the point of the film, that Dylan is a man of many men and not all are pleasant. Let us examine the possibilities of music and film through the voice on Bob Dylan.


During the scenes towards the end of Dylan’s early rock and roll phase, his female companion calls Cate Blanchett’s Jude Quinn a cocksucker, to which Quinn replies, “It’s not what goes into your mouth that matters.” A few minutes later that same Quinn vomits from exhaustion and an indulgence in “medicines.” This is the end of the Bob Dylan we all wish we knew and we keep coming back to in our memories. Dorm rooms across America aren’t littered with photos of Dylan accepting a Grammy for Time Out of Mind, they’re filled with posters of Dylan smoking cigarettes care-free while he adjusts his harmonica. While Dylan reflected on all of these moments, he wrote music subtly referencing or explaining himself through characters. This scene is a way that film can combine this reflection and the moment reflected upon. You get the diary entry while knowing the end game. This is the end of the film, although I don’t think it ruins or spoils anything.

Cate Blanchett’s performance in I’M NOT THERE (Part 5 of 5) [YouTube]

“These people actually think I have some kind of fantastic imagination. I think that’s very lonesome.” – Jude Quinn

Then there are some very abstract takes on Dylan, which for the Haynes as a filmmaker seem to be drawn from conclusions he personally has made about Dylan’s situation. This is where Richard Gere as Billy the Kid dodges the bullet shot from Pat Garrity (figuratively) and lives a life in isolation in an absurd town called Riddle, MO. But, this can be read as an allegory for the complications in dealing with journalists. At one point in his life, Dylan toyed with reporters, but as he was harassed more and more he began to withdraw and we are left with the Dylan that stares stage left while he sings re-worked versions of old favorites. So he is supposed to be like the man portrayed in the song, “Going to Acapulco,” just a normal guy chasing fun and a woman making a living as a singer, nothing more. But when you have the Billy the Kid Dylan watching all this unfold on stage and in the middle of a tragedy, it becomes so much more intense and full of sorrow and regret. Is Haynes insinuating that if the reclusive Dylan were face to face with himself before his withdrawal, he would not go through with it? Watch the scene and check it, but you have to see the entire film to see this play out. Also, you have to see Jim James in white face.

Bob Dylan – Goin’ to Acapulco [YouTube]

This bit of MMJ made me need more, so here is another video of the song with Calexico at a benefit concert.

Calexico w/ Jim James – Going to Acapulco [YouTube]

This is Heath Ledger as Robbie, the actor who once portrayed Jack Rollins, who is the version of Dylan played by Christian Bale. Here is a clip of the most straight-forward example of the use of Dylan’s music to express emotion. It seems like a music video and I would normally be against this type of montage, but since it’s all Dylan, it takes on a certain description of life as a merging of scenes, a notion expressed by Blanchett’s Dylan.

I’m not there – I want you clip (Heath Ledger) [YouTube]

So, the film is great and it is an experiment in how film can be more than a genre movie. This is a biopic, but it is also a musical and a drama, with the biopic element downplayed due to the allusions to the person being biographed being merely mentions. This is a film the Union Forever can get down on because it is fully encased in both media being equally important.

  • Boy

    I have been a Dylan fan for all of my life. Maybe that’s why I couldn’t stand this film. It’s difficult to accept another’s interpretation of Dylan’s life and work. The beauty of music is that it is entirely open to interpretation. Dylan himself often alluded to the fact that even he was not the authority on his own music. The song was already there, he would say, I just sorta came along and captured it and put it on paper. Though I give Haynes credit for his effort and applaud his choice of subject matter, I simply did not enjoy this movie. Quite frankly, it pissed me off! I hated many of his perspectives and despised the way he tried to interweave songs like Mr. Jones into his “plot”.
    I did enjoy the music, of course. Jim James’ performance was moving. It is the only scene from the movie that I would watch again.

  • Boy

    I have been a Dylan fan for all of my life. Maybe that’s why I couldn’t stand this film. It’s difficult to accept another’s interpretation of Dylan’s life and work. The beauty of music is that it is entirely open to interpretation. Dylan himself often alluded to the fact that even he was not the authority on his own music. The song was already there, he would say, I just sorta came along and captured it and put it on paper. Though I give Haynes credit for his effort and applaud his choice of subject matter, I simply did not enjoy this movie. Quite frankly, it pissed me off! I hated many of his perspectives and despised the way he tried to interweave songs like Mr. Jones into his “plot”.
    I did enjoy the music, of course. Jim James’ performance was moving. It is the only scene from the movie that I would watch again.

  • mitch

    hey boy,
    you’re right, there is a lot to digest with dylan and a lot to be left alone. Still, a single film cannot stand as the “official film interpretation” of Bob Dylan, so I tend to think of this film as a representation of the relationship between Dylan and his fans. A lot of Dylan’s fans, myself included, want to know “what he was really saying” in all those songs. Your observation on the inclusion of mr. jones into the plot is director haynes assuming that the song is a reference to the media and that scene was how he portrayed it. now I think dylan’s songs are far to alluding to be that finitely portrayed, and I think you agree, so we feel like Haynes jumped the gun or is going against the secret handshake among dylan fans not to interpret his songs. but, the format of a collage film allows us to remember that there is not one narrative and maybe there are none at all. the fact that haynes fails at the specifics of these narratives is less important than the attempt to avoid one single sacrosanct definition of dylan.
    thanks, boy.

  • mitch

    hey boy,
    you’re right, there is a lot to digest with dylan and a lot to be left alone. Still, a single film cannot stand as the “official film interpretation” of Bob Dylan, so I tend to think of this film as a representation of the relationship between Dylan and his fans. A lot of Dylan’s fans, myself included, want to know “what he was really saying” in all those songs. Your observation on the inclusion of mr. jones into the plot is director haynes assuming that the song is a reference to the media and that scene was how he portrayed it. now I think dylan’s songs are far to alluding to be that finitely portrayed, and I think you agree, so we feel like Haynes jumped the gun or is going against the secret handshake among dylan fans not to interpret his songs. but, the format of a collage film allows us to remember that there is not one narrative and maybe there are none at all. the fact that haynes fails at the specifics of these narratives is less important than the attempt to avoid one single sacrosanct definition of dylan.
    thanks, boy.