For his impressionistic 2007 Bob Dylan biopic I'm Not There, director Todd Haynes hired an army of six actors to portray the singer/songwriter, each thespian representing a different phase or public persona of Dylan's career. The accompanying double-disc soundtrack -- not all of its 34 songs are used in the film -- employs a similar conceit, as Haynes and his music supervisors, Randall Poster and Jim Dunbar, rounded up rockers and folksingers of all stripes to reinterpret and re-create portions of Dylan's immense catalog. Taken as a whole, neither the singers nor the selections are too conventional, as the album alternates between standards and obscurities, old cohorts and new blood, faithful renditions and original interpretations, never tipping too far in either direction or staying in one place too long. Despite that shifting mood, I'm Not There gels as an album, partially because a good portion of the soundtrack is recorded with one of two different house bands: the dusty, cinematic Arizona outfit Calexico and the Million Dollar Bashers, a supergroup assembled for this gig featuring guitarist Lee Ranaldo and drummer Steve Shelley of Sonic Youth, Tom Verlaine, Dylan's regular bassist Tony Garnier, Wilco guitarist Nels Cline, guitarist Smokey Hormel, and organist John Medeski.
Haynes also used a similar house band on his previous rock & roll film, the glam rock fantasia Velvet Goldmine and, as a soundtrack, I'm Not There is equally as good, if not quite as risky or flashy as that 1998 gem. That's partly due to the inspiration, of course: on Velvet Goldmine he got to play with the history of a lot of groups, all known for their extravagant flamboyance, but here he only has one artist, but if any musician has a history as rich as a battalion of bands, it's Bob Dylan. Haynes, Poster, Dunbar and crew concentrate heavily on the '60s -- the film, after all, is grounded in the '60s, pulling in elements of Dylan's life in the '70s and beyond, including his born-again Christianity and Rolling Thunder outlaw stance, but never quite straying from that foundation -- and the soundtrack touches upon all of Bob's '60s incarnations, including the folk troubadour, thin wild mercury music, the ragged Americana of The Basement Tapes, and the reflective country-folk of John Wesley Harding. Familiar sounds may be here, but not necessarily familiar songs -- Haynes, Poster and Dunbar deliberately sidestep standards like "Blowin' in the Wind," "Masters of War," "Subterranean Homesick Blues," and "Like a Rolling Stone," choosing instead to build this soundtrack around songs that weren't widely released during the '60s, later to surface on The Basement Tapes, Biograph, The Bootleg Series, during the film of No Direction Home, or, in the case of the heavily bootlegged title song, released here for the first time. Some could carp that this doesn't quite make for an accurate picture of Bob -- it ever so slightly continually circles back to the stark, spooky melancholy of Dylan and the Band's "I'm Not There," which ends the album -- but it's not inaccurate, either. Rather, it's an interpretation of Dylan's music, emphasizing certain elements and blurring others to paint a portrait where the traditional bleeds into the contemporary and vice versa.
Any Dylanologist could spend hours deconstructing the soundtrack to I'm Not There -- what is selected and why, why certain songs are reinterpreted while others are left alone -- but that's a side benefit to an album that should be enjoyed first as simply an absorbing, entertaining listen. Poster and Dunbar have paired performers with the songs almost perfectly, alternating between subtle surprises and sure picks. No other band could duplicate the haunted quality of Dylan's "I'm Not There," but Sonic Youth is the ideal match, as they give the song a hazy beauty and a warmth lacking in the original. Sonic Youth's masterful reading is less of a surprise than how Roger McGuinn and Willie Nelson effortlessly blend in with Calexico on "One More Cup of Coffee" and "Señor (Tales of Yankee Power)," respectively, giving these songs arrangements that expand on the originals, just like how Ramblin' Jack Elliott's "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" takes the Highway 61 Revisited standard and stripes it down to its essence. John Doe gives "I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine" a subdued, soulful passion that contrasts with both Sufjan Stevens' twee-ed-up "Ring Them Bells" and Mark Lanegan's gothic "The Man in the Long Black Coat," yet all speak vividly to the spiritual undercurrents in these songs. Despite their gentle version of "Just Like a Woman" with Charlotte Gainsbourg, Calexico's cuts come the closest to reinventing the song, particularly on an excellent "Dark Eyes" with Iron & Wine and a good, weary "Goin' to Acapulco" sung by Jim James of My Morning Jacket. Mason Jennings is responsible for good, straight-ahead versions of the earliest folk songs ("The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll," "The Times They Are a Changin'"), acquitting himself well, while Once stars Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova do a joyous "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere."
All this soft, dreamy folky material helps the harder cuts here -- including Cat Power's bluesy "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again" -- leap out all the more. Usually, this is the province of the Million Dollar Bashers, who when fronted by Stephen Malkmus on "Ballad of a Thin Man" and "Maggie's Farm" manage to re-create the snide, hipster spirit of 1965 Dylan. They pull off the same trick with Karen O on a rollicking and faithful "Highway 61 Revisited," while Tom Verlaine steps out to the front for a dark, epic "Cold Irons Bound," but this house band isn't the only band that rocks hard, either: the Hold Steady blow through "Can You Please Crawl out Your Window?" and the Black Keys have an heavy, ominous "Wicked Messenger" (not all that dissimilar to the Faces' version, but decidedly less fun). But no band truly gets to speak to the two extremes of Dylan's work (at least as pictured here) as Yo La Tengo, who have a delicate, beautiful "Fourth Time Around" and positively nail the wild, careening sound of 1965 on "I Wanna be Your Lover." They, alone among any of the artists here, get the opportunity to do these two sides of Dylan, but as I'm Not There definitively proves, there were not just two or even ten sides to Dylan: he contains multitudes. That much is evident on his own recordings, which still have power, but sometimes it takes a fresh perspective to hear what's already there, and the soundtrack to I'm Not There provides that perspective in way few other albums do.