An expert supply of mutual appreciation for the artistry of the artist formerly known as Zimmerman makes I'm Not There impossible to ignore.
Todd Haynes is a filmmaker who, in the last 30 years, has seemed to make his sole purpose in celluloid challenging his viewers as much as humanly possible with a wildly diverse and controversial thematic range. Haynes has covered everything from teen suicide in his 1978 student short debut The Suicide, to a Barbie doll-depicted portrayal of the life of Karen Carpenter (1987’s lawsuit-inducing cult classic Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story), to the harsh realities of AIDS told in a campy '60s sci-fi-cum-pop documentary motif (his 1991 directorial debut Poison), to a portrayal of a housewife who was literally allergic to the 20th century (1995’s critically acclaimed Safe), to a Douglas Sirk tribute about closeted homosexuals in the 1950s (2002’s Oscar-nominated Far from Heaven).
But who could have guessed that Haynes, given his previous endeavors, would choose to turn his eye for provocation towards the historic oeuvre of Bob Dylan, and emerge with what could possibly go down in pop culture history as one of the greatest depictions of a rock artist to ever come out of Hollywood, if the glowing advanced press is any indication (one critic compared Haynes’s work here to that of Godard and Peckinpah). Utilizing six different actors of varying creeds and genders -- including Marcus Carl Franklin, Cate Blanchett, Heath Ledger, Christian Bale, Richard Gere, and Ben Whishaw -- to portray Dylan in the seven different phases of his career, Haynes certainly wasn’t going for convention here in the least. But the director’s unabashed love and sage wisdom for Zimmerman's music certainly shines through the minor clips of the film that have been leaked onto YouTube, and is most certainly expressed in the expert choice of artists he and his cohorts have gathered together for its soundtrack.
Gathering together thirty-odd acts from across the rock, folk, and country spectrum to pick and interpret their favorite selections from the Bob Dylan catalog, I’m Not There does not so much serve as a soundtrack, but as perhaps one of the strongest tribute albums to come out in recent memory. And one that could’ve most certainly gone the wrong way if it had fallen into different hands, that’s for sure (Plain White T’s covering “Blowin’ in the Wind", anyone?).
Sure, there are some selections here we could have done without, particularly the input of those artists who chose to simply transform an otherwise perfectly good Dylan song into an uninspired outtake from their latest crappy album (sorry, Black Keys and Hold Steady fans). Or those who decided to bust out a droll, note-for-note facsimile of their favorite Dylan cut, most notably Mason Jennings’s coffeehouse karaoke versions of “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” and “The Times They Are a Changin’”.
But luckily, the duds are in the strong minority here, as the lion’s share of this massive 34-song, 160-minute epic of a soundtrack features some serious, quality coverage of Dylan’s catalog spanning the near-entirety of his career. The most wonderful surprises here include contributions from X’s John Doe, who offers two songs here: a gospel-tinged, Joe Henry-produced version of “Pressing On” from Dylan’s Christian-era Saved LP, and a beautiful reading of the John Wesley Harding nugget “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine”. Both Mark Lanegan and Sufjan Stevens commemorate the oft-overlooked 1989 comeback classic Oh Mercy, taking on “Man in the Long Black Coat” and “Ring Them Bells”, respectively. Richie Havens, who makes a strong cameo in the film, turns up to make “Tombstone Blues” his own, as does Yo La Tengo, with legendary Lovin’ Spoonful frontman John Sebastian in tow on harmonica, on “Fourth Time Around” and “I Wanna Be Your Lover”. And Los Lobos really brings the Western out of “Billy 1” from Dylan’s soundtrack to Sam Peckinpah’s 1973 film Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.
The real finds on the I’m Not There are the selections from the soundtrack’s two house bands, the Million Dollar Bashers and Calexico. As Haynes had done with the soundtrack to his 1998 love letter to British glam rock, Velvet Goldmine, he and his music supervisors employed a cobbled-together dream team of modern rock musicians to kick out selected jams with winning results. For I’m Not There, however, they chose to employ one already full-time band, namely Calexico -- who spin gold accompanying My Morning Jacket’s Jim James on the Basement Tapes ballad “Goin’ to Acapulco”, Roger McQuinn for “One More Cup of Coffee”, and the legendary Willie Nelson for his surprising choice of “Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)” off 1978’s Street Legal, not to mention helping Charlotte Gainsbourg through Blonde on Blonde’s “Just Like a Woman”.
But you do get the supergroup here as well, and boy what a group they assembled for this project in the Million Dollar Bashers. Consisting of Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley, longtime Bob Dylan band bassist Tony Garnier, downtown jazz legend John Medeski doing his best Richard Manuel on the keyboards, and the quadruple guitar attack of Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo, Televison’s Tom Verlaine, Wilco’s Nels Cline, and Tom Waits's go-to git-man Smokey Hormel, the Bashers could very well be one of the finest bands ever assembled, for a soundtrack or otherwise. And they really come through in their quality revision of Dylan’s mid-'60s “Thin Wild Mercury” sound, particularly backing up the likes of once-and-future Pavement frontman Stephen Malkmus for his respectable takes on “Ballad of a Thin Man” and “Maggie’s Farm”, as well as a rip-snortin’ spin on “Highway 61 Revisited” with Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs on lead vocals and kazoo. The rendition of “All Along the Watchtower” with Eddie Vedder will most definitely not replace Jimi Hendrix’s or U2’s versions of the quintessential Dylan rocker, but when they keep it within their own company and accompany Verlaine on his haunting reading of Time Out of Mind’s “Cold Irons Bound”, one can only hope there’s an album’s worth of outtakes from these guys that may someday float up to the surface.
The sole contribution that actually features Bob Dylan is tacked onto the end of the soundtrack, that being the title track of the movie (which is also expertly handled by Sonic Youth on disc one). Long renowned by hardcore Dylanites who managed to score a copy of the highly coveted Complete Basement Tapes bootleg, “I’m Not There” -- enjoying its debut as an official release thanks to Neil Young, who had a copy of the master on him -- is definitely a song worthy to serve as the title and muse of this most exceptional piece of film.
One can only wish the other 100-odd songs from those Basement Tapes sessions can be cleaned up just as nicely as “I’m Not There” and released as the eighth volume of the Bootleg Series. Legacy, are you listening?