Few American musicians have had more celluloid or ink devoted to them than Bob Dylan. Over the years endless books, articles, television specials and movies have attempted to capture the personality and prominence of Americas most famous troubadour, including, most recently, Martin Scorseses three and a half hour 2005 biopic, No Direction Home, which followed closely on the heels of the 2004 first volume of Dylans own memoirs, Chronicles. Could there possibly be room for yet another artistic take on his life, especially one explicitly marketed as an homage to the singer?
Yes, if that treatment is the innovative and imaginative film Im Not There by director Todd Haynes. Taking its title from a never-before-released Dylan track, the movie (released at the end of November to critical acclaim but modest commercial success) offers new takes on Dylan as a cultural icon while mining endlessly the past five decades of media coverage of the prickly singer. Dylans public image, private life, personal mythology and famous moments are recreated in over two hours and fifteen minutes, and six different actors play six different versions of Dylan (though Haynes gives none of them that name) in six separate but interwoven storylines. Its a perfect conceit for a personality who has reinvented himself so often.
Over the past 48 years, we have seen Dylan as the original vagabond, arriving in Greenwich Village with a six-string guitar and a pack of lies about his past; as the weird young folk star who eclipsed Joan Baez to become the darling of Tin Pan Alley; as the grudging social activist, singing against war and racism and unpleasant ex-girlfriends; as the plugged-in crossover rock star; as the born-again Christian who was booed for years by his own fans; and as the reinvigorated elder statesman of American music, capable of claiming in one moment that no good music has been made since the CD was invented and of selling his music and image to Victorias Secret for racy underwear ads in the next.
Im Not There tells the story a little differently but with the same disorienting effects. The tale begins with African-American teenager Marcus Carl Franklin playing Dylan as a prepubescent guitar-wielding folkie calling himself Woody Guthrie and riding the rails with appropriately disheveled hobos, a tall tale somewhat similar to that which Dylan constructed out of thin air about his own past. Christian Bale plays the folk-singer darling of the political left (Jack Rollins in the film) as well as a born-again Christian rusticated out to rural churches, while Ben Whishaw plays a barely-there poetic Dylan who confuses himself with the French symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud. Richard Gere plays the bizarre Billy The Kid of Dylans brief career as film auteur, and both Geres role and the plot in this storyline are as confusing and disappointing as Dylans real-life cinematic turns.
Two other storylines are the heart and soul of this film, and Heath Ledger and Cate Blanchett offer magnificent portrayals of Dylan as confused superstar divorcee and cranky musical antihero, respectively. Though an improbably broad-shouldered stand-in for the spindly Dylan, Ledger effectively emotes the pathos and self-incrimination of an adulterous celebrity whose choices seem perfectly natural in his starry world but are nevertheless impossibly painful to someone who knew me when I was hungry, and it was your world. Ledgers brooding squints and what-did-I-know emotional bafflement express equally well the solipsistic world of a new celebrity attempting to deal with sudden and improbable fame. Ledgers own recent death at 28, just a few years after skyrocketing to fame himself, places a poignant yet troubling patina on his portrayal of troubled movie star Robbie Clark.
Cate Blanchett, however, is the unquestioned star of this film, stealing the show as the painfully skinny Dylan (or, as Haynes would have it, Jude Quinn) of the later 1960s. For her segments, Haynes has stolen liberally from the 1967 D. A. Pennebaker documentary on Dylan, Dont Look Back, occasionally recreating that black-and-white film shot for shot. Blanchetts ability to capture the young Dylans look and mannerisms reminds viewers of something long forgotten: once upon a time, Dylan was something of an androgyne, strikingly delicate in both his features and his movements, very different from the wizened old wizard he now presents to the world. Blanchett, with the help of a pleasingly preposterous mop of hair, nails exactly the sensitive, angry, often petulant rock star whose musical genius was not often accompanied by social graces. When the camera pulls in close on Blanchett, her artistic range and focus become clearnot a single gesture is wasted, nor does any facial expression strike a wrong note, as if she were poured into Dylans (much less wrinkly) skin for the duration of the film.
An important caveat for the viewer: this movie is probably largely incomprehensible to any viewer without some knowledge or appreciation of Dylan, because it is meant largely as an appreciation of the artist rather than a linear tale with any single theme. My neighbors in the theater were not huge Dylan fans (when did he die again? one asked), and so experienced what was probably a fairly common reaction among neophytes to the Dylan legend: that this is an interesting and well-crafted film that doesnt always make a whole lot of sense.
At times, Haynes intimate knowledge of Dylans career and iconography can come across as a series of inside jokes, including his depictions of famous Dylan friends, lovers and colleagues like Joan Baez, Allen Ginsberg and oily manager Albert Grossman. At most points, these knowing cinematic smirks work perfectly (who could not laugh at comedian David Cross as a hirsute Ginsberg?), but in other scenes they drag down the film with jarringly weak moments, including a painful sequence in which Dylan encounters the young Beatles capering about in public. Im Not There can still be rewarding for the viewer with a basic grasp of the arc of Dylans life and work; it is just a little more rewarding for those who will only listen to Blood on the Tracks on vinyl because all other musical media are a betrayal of everything that Dylan stands for.
An added bonus to the film is an eclectic but well-conceived soundtrack, featuring covers of Dylan songs by everyone from longtime Dylan borrower Roger McGuinn (of The Byrds) to the high priest of 1990s alternative hipsterdom, Stephen Malkmus, to Jack Johnson, Jeff Tweedy and Calexico. With only the title track sung by Dylan itself, the soundtrack provides new takes on Dylans lyrics but also hearkens back to an era when Dylan would see other artists (The Byrds, Peter, Paul and Mary and even Joan Baez) achieve commercial and critical success with his songs before he did. Viewers who liked the film will probably also enjoy the two-disc soundtrack, even if forced to listen to it in a CD format.