By Joe Heim
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 30, 2007
"I'm Not There," the new Todd Haynes-directed fictional movie about Bob Dylan, boasts seven actors (most notably Cate Blanchett) portraying the mysterious rock icon at various stages of his life. So it was probably unavoidable that the flick would be accompanied by a soundtrack of covers by a bevy of artists beckoning the spirit of Bob.
Unavoidable, yes, but did it have to be such a train wreck?
The two-disc soundtrack, totaling 34 songs and clocking in at just under 159 minutes, feels like an indulgent director's cut: bloated, confused, impetuous and lacking any evidence of an editor's sure hand -- or surer ear. Instead, the effort is a clash of styles, approaches, interpretations and, frankly, ability. While that may have been the point -- to explore every Dylan facet from every angle possible -- the perspectives don't feel particularly unique or inspired. Mostly they just feel tiring.
There are, to be sure, some exquisite renderings of Dylan songs here. Mira Billotte's achingly beautiful "As I Went Out One Morning" gets the second disc off to a superb start. Yeah Yeah Yeah's lead singer Karen O brings just the right amount of swagger and snarl to "Highway 61 Revisited," and Cat Power works her ethereal, soulful magic on "Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again." Well, at least the women got Dylan right.
For novelty's sake, a few selections sound like better-than-average impressions of other people doing Dylan songs. The Hold Steady offers "Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?" as some sort of Springsteenian epic. Irishman Glen Hansard sounds disconcertingly like Loudon Wainwright III on "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere." And Yo La Tengo, with Georgia Hubley singing, does its best Nico-era Velvet Underground on "Fourth Time Around."
But let's get to the awful stuff, shall we?
Surfer-songwriter Jack Johnson almost gets through a tepid version of "Mama, You've Been on My Mind" but then clunks up the ending by inserting an ill-advised rap of a portion of Dylan's poem "Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie." Mason Jennings performs two stinging Dylan songs, "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" and "The Times They Are A-Changin','' and makes them sound meek and melancholy. The feather-whispery Charlotte Gainsbourg -- was she recording this in a library? -- covers "Just Like a Woman" and sings it just like a little girl. And Sufjan Stevens tarts up "Ring Them Bells" with his trademark -- and predictable -- orchestral flourishes.
More established artists miss the mark badly as well. On the dirgelike "Cold Irons Bound," Tom Verlaine contributes yet more dirge and makes the song sound every bit its 7:34-minute running time. Los Angeles punk pioneer John Doe uncharacteristically slogs his way through both "I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine" and "Pressing On." Willie Nelson phones in a bland "Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)." And a weak-sounding Roger McGuinn sings "One More Cup of Coffee" as though he needs one.
While not particularly ambitious, there are a number of straightforward covers here that are competent, including efforts by former Pavement member Stephen Malkmus ("Ballad of a Thin Man," "Maggie's Farm"); Eddie Vedder ("All Along the Watchtower"); Los Lobos ("Billy 1"); Mark Lanegan ("Man in the Long Black Coat"); Richie Havens ("Tombstone Blues"); and Ramblin' Jack Elliott ("Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues").
One song, the title track, is performed twice. Sonic Youth serves it up as a gritty, slow-motion grunge track. The other version is by Dylan himself, a previously unreleased outtake from "The Basement Tapes" session. It is both meandering and mesmerizing, and a reminder, if anyone needed it after listening to this soundtrack, that with the exception of Jimi Hendrix's "All Along the Watchtower," nobody does a better job on Dylan songs than Bob Dylan.