The soundtrack of “I’m Not There” is as varied as the six different Dylans in Todd Haynes’ experimental biopic. The roster combines contemporary indie darlings with rock and folk trailblazers of years past — Richie Havens, Willie Nelson, and John Doe to name a few. This mix also takes the form of The Million Dollar Bashers, a super-group put together as a backing band for many of the artists on the soundtrack. The band is comprised of members of Sonic Youth, Wilco, Television, Medeski Martin & Wood and Bob Dylan’s own touring group.
The soundtrack definitely caters to Dylan’s current fans, focusing mostly on his work from the mid-to-late 60s. There are still plenty of tracks from his early acoustic years, gospel endeavors and more recent releases. The covers work best when the artist seeks to treat the song as one of their own. Backed by Calexico, Jim James belts out the lyrics to “Goin’ To Acapulco” with the same juicy southern wail you would expect from any My Morning Jacket song. Some renditions are so far from Dylan’s sound that it’s hard to believe they ever graced his guitar; As much as I hate to admit it, The Hold Steady combine their hipster cock-rock vibe with Dylan B-side “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window” for surprisingly stellar results. Yo La Tengo go the opposite route doing a version of “I Wanna Be Your Lover” that is so spot-on, it can easily be confused for the original before the vocals come in. This song is the exception rather than the rule. The missteps of the album occur when artists can’t quite pull off a Dylan impression, or don’t take their personal twist or radical interpretations far enough. Ramblin’ Jack Elliott successfully sucks the life out of “Just Like Tom Thumb Blues” while Karen O’s attempt at a Dylan-esque whine on “Highway 61 Revisited” sounds more like mockery than reverence.
The beauty of the album is its occasional ability to show why Haynes has six Dylans. Bob Dylan may have been an ever-shifting anomaly, but we must remember that we are seeing this from an outsider perspective. The importance of the different Dylan eras is that they extended a wider influence than most single musicians would ever imagine possible; it allowed for Dylan to mean so many different things to so many people. With the octave vocal jump in the refrain of “A Simple Twist of Fate” we better understand the emotive frustration in every piece of Jeff Tweedy’s songwriting. When we hear Stephen Malkmus’ agitated yelling in “Ballad of a Thin Man” we now have new insight into each wonderfully surreal Pavement lyric. The soundtrack’s most incredible ability is to bring a new understanding, not to Dylan, but to the artists who would not be what they are today without him.