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I'm Not There 

Soundrack featuring various artists

Director and writer Todd Haynes' new film, an unusual, eccentric biopic of Bob Dylan entitled I'm Not There, stars six different actors, including Cate Blanchett, Richard Gere, Christian Bale and Heath Ledger, portraying the enigmatic singer/songwriter in different stages of his life and career. With the wide release of at least two detailed documentaries on Dylan (D.A. Pennebaker's Don't Look Back and Martin Scorsese's No Direction Home), this odd approach seems to make sense.

The soundtrack, which refers to an unreleased Dylan song, recorded with the Band (which this soundtrack includes), could have been, regardless of intentions, a poor tribute. Fortunately, this is not the case. Organized by Randall Poster, Jim Dunbar and director Todd Haynes, the two-CD soundtrack is a strong collection of Bob Dylan covers, which is already a loaded subject, considering how many covers of Dylan songs have previously been released and made into "hits."

Calexico and "the Million Dollar Bashers" — a "superband" consisting of Steve Shelley (drums), Tony Garnier (bass), John Medeski (Hammond B3 organ), Tom Verlaine (guitar), Lee Renaldo (guitar), Smokey Hormel (guitar) and Nels Cline (guitar) — provide the bulk of support behind various artists. The "Bashers" accompany a diverse group, such as Stephen Malkmus (formerly of Pavement), Karen O (lead singer of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs) and Eddie Vedder. While some of the stronger cuts come from the support of Calexico, backing Jim James (My Morning Jacket), Iron & Wine, Roger McGuinn, Willie Nelson and actress/singer Charlotte Gainsbourg (daughter of Serge Gainsbourg, who also appears in the film as Dylan's wife). James' cover of "Goin' to Acapulco," originally released on The Basement Tapes, is outstanding; his soulful Southern vocal compliments the South-of-the-Border orchestration of Joey Burns and his band Calexico, with near perfection.

Other highlights include Yo La Tengo (whose rave-up version of "I Wanna Be Your Lover" is an aural combination of the mid-'60s Stones performing the McCartney/Lennon "I Want To Be Your Lover" with the Highway 61 Revisted-era looseness, especially with the Al Kooper-esque organ), Mark Lanegan (whose bullfrog-deep vocals can deliver a new darkness to "Man in a Long Black Coat") and Antony & the Johnsons (the ever-difficult task of successfully pulling off "Knockin' On Heaven's Door").

There are some pedestrian, or flat, renditions in this collection, including "All Along the Watchtower," where the Million Dollar Bashers' musicianship could not salvage Vedder's lifeless delivery, while Mason Jennings, covering "The Times They Are A-Changin'," merely emulates the original. What makes a successful, or even brilliant, cover? When artist makes the song his or her own. It is Sufjan Stevens who gives the most notable translation of Dylan's work, with a dizzying version of "Ring Them Bells" (from Oh Mercy), which contains surreal elements of Stevens' form of pop/folk, mixed with fragments of vaudeville and country music. It's a perfect metaphor to Todd Haynes' vision of what his film intends to be: not a mere re-creation, but rather a personal inspiration. Hope the film can stand up to its soundtrack.

— Mark Shikuma,Journalcritic

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Mark Shikuma

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