I'm Not There OST
I'm Not There is director Todd Haynes' third music biopic, after Superstar in 1987 and Velvet Goldmine in 1998. In each of those films, the main subject-- the celebrity at the center-- has been altered or is somehow absent: Superstar recounted Karen Carpenter's death from anorexia with only Barbie dolls, which continually prevents it from being officially released. The Velvet Goldmine traces David Bowie's rise and fall throughout the 1970s, but the singer threatened to sue and refused to license his songs. So Haynes took even more liberties with the story, which involved aliens, assassins, and an ongoing affair with Iggy Pop. By all accounts, I'm Not There, his new film about Bob Dylan, continues this sort of meaningful absence, casting six actors to play the folk singer in various stages of his life and career (essentially the same thing), and literalizing the mercurial nature of his identity. Likewise, the soundtrack for I'm Not There casts 29 singers to re-create that singular voice in all its permutations and variations, with surprising results.
Dylan and his music have become so ingrained in American pop culture that it's easy to forget what a weirdo he was, personally and musically. Drawing from a folkie predilection for overstatement, he wrote tons of verses per song, in oblique and impenetrable metaphors, words collapsing upon words, barbed with inside jokes, private accusations, and masked characters. He sang these songs in a nasal voice that became more and more of a defense mechanism as the years went on, suggesting a self-conscious lapse into self-parody. Culling songs from his legendary albums as well as from obscure bootlegs, I'm Not There covers nearly every fabled aspect of his career: his earnest folkie beginnings, his electric post-Newport days, his conversion to Christianity, his 80s nadir, and finally, his current status as an eccentric éminence grise. In taking such a broad sampling of songs, I'm Not There persuasively argues that each phase is as important and potentially rewarding as any other.
Because Dylan wrote such dense and distinctive songs, covering his work necessarily involves as much impersonation as interpretation. In fact, the best songs on I'm Not There are the ones where the artists seem to be having a great time being Bob. Chan Marshall mimics his cadences on "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again", and her pronunciation of the world "mama" is one of the album's best moments. Craig Finn sings "Won't You Please Crawl Out Your Window?" with a chuckle in his voice, as the Hold Steady relocate the song to the Minneapolis streets of Separation Sunday. And Stephen Malkmus, who gets a whopping three tracks, gives some of his best and weirdest performances since going solo.
The cast of I'm Not There is admirably diverse, mixing relative newcomers like Karen O and Mason Jennings with veterans like Willie Nelson, whose despairing "Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)", from 1978's Street Legal, is a good argument for a full-length collaboration with Calexico. Roger McGuinn's voice has aged considerably over the years, but he sounds both surefooted and surprisingly tender on "One More Cup of Coffee", another perfect match with Calexico. And Richie Havens' uniquely jumpy energy jolts "Tombstone Blues", surpassing mere imitation and ratcheting up its wordy tension.
Perhaps it's a testament to the potency of his peculiarities-- rather than to the strength of his convictions-- that Dylan's songs are so successfully coverable in so many different styles. They're challenging undertakings, but possible, inspiring varying degrees adventurousness in some artists and reverence in others. Despite a stellar backing band (including members of Sonic Youth and Television), Eddie Vedder's "All Along the Watchtower" sounds just like every other version of the song and Mason Jennings can't do anything with the iconic "The Times They Are a'Changin'" other than render it faithfully. It's a crazy, mixed-up world, though, when Jack Johnson's medley of "Mama, You've Been on My Mind/A Fraction of Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie" has more smarts and soul than Sufjan Stevens' "Ring Them Bells", which begins as a fairly uninspired cover but sails off into a tediously overwritten coda that strains patience and good will. But that's really the only truly objectionable track on this long album, which sounds much better on your stereo than it did on paper. With so many different types of musicians contributing to these 34 songs, I'm Not There could have turned out like so many inconsistent and forgettable tribute soundtracks-- listened to once or twice, then shelved for eternity-- but instead it plays like a real album, focused on the music and leaving the myth to the movie.
-Stephen M. Deusner, October 30, 2007