Todd Haynes’ film I’m Not There is a Bob Dylan fan’s dream: six different actors representing six different sides of the rock ‘n’ roll chameleon, replicating familiar scenes from his life and myth, all set to the music of the master of words himself. In a particularly effective maneuver, we get many of Dylan’s finest songs, some delivered by him, others by a diverse batch of artists that have been compiled on the film’s soundtrack, along with additional covers that succeed in varying degrees.
Bob Dylan, approximately: While Cate Blanchett plays one of a few Dylan-inspired characters in the new film I’m Not There, musicians from Sonic Youth and Richie Havens to Stephen Malkmus try their best (with a few great successes) on the soundtrack.
Fragments of songs provide the most insightful moments: Sonic Youth manages to dirty the dirge that is the title song, out-flourishing Dylan and The Band’s version (which, to be fair, was just a demo). Stephen Malkmus’ take on "Can’t Leave Her Behind" also offers a new and delicate touch to what is captured only in D.A. Pennebaker’s footage from Dylan’s 1966 European tour (and seen in Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home).
Even so, John Doe’s "Pressing On" (from Saved) brings a gravitas to the gospel song that Dylan’s pleading delivery never could, while Tom Verlaine manages to out-murk the original "Cold Irons Bound" from Time Out of Mind. "I’m beginning to hear voices, and there’s no one around. Well, I’m all used up, yeah," he gasps, adding the last word, "and the fields have turned brown." On screen somewhere, Richard Gere rides a horse into the town of Riddle to the same tune.
Elsewhere, The Black Keys make "Wicked Messenger" sound like a Black Keys song, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but if you want to hear a real blues stomp then track down the Faces’ version in which Rod Stewart and Ron Wood tear apart Dylan’s implosive original.
Richie Havens is old hat to Dylan’s songcraft, first encountering the singer when he stumbled into a club in Greenwich Village and heard the young Woody Guthrie imitator strumming "A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall." Here, he takes on "Tombstone Blues" and gives it a sweeping grandeur, Havens-style.
Where the film delights with arcane and wink-wink references, the I’m Not There soundtrack underwhelms with familiarity. Where it works best is in its offering of Dylan’s less obvious tracks, such as My Morning Jacket singer Jim James’ echoed croon on "Goin’ to Acapulco" or Mira Billotte’s amphetamine-laced "As I Went Out One Morning." Maybe that’s because many of these songs have been played many a time and, while they can still give new inflections and new significance, other artists’ renditions can disappoint for their sheer imitation. For the uninitiated, that may be just fine.