Music biopics tend to be prosaic in form — a chronological recounting of a Pop star's life, highlighting the push-and-pull between personal tragedies and artistic triumphs. Usually, such films get their energy and achieve their success through the acting and music — Ray and Walk the Line being the most notable recent examples. Their narratives are cliched.
But I'm Not There, only loosely modeled on yet profoundly about Bob Dylan's life, is different. Director and co-writer (with Oren Moverman) Todd Haynes has structured a freewheelin' film (with Dylan's permission) based on the associative imagery and mystique that a great Dylan song creates when heard by a fan. You'll like this film if you ever craned toward a radio trying to decipher and construe lyrics to "Like a Rolling Stone" or wondered about the man behind that drawling, seductive, alluring, radically singular voice. And who hasn't?
Six very different actors — including Cate Blanchett in a turn worthy of an Oscar nomination — play Dylan-inspired characters (the name "Bob Dylan" is never mentioned). Although there is ample crosscutting to keep each one's story moving forward simultaneously, their worlds are presented like different movies with different moods. Sometimes the separate stories are shot by cinematographer Edward Lachman with different film stock or in black and white rather than color.
Haynes, who also made Safe, Velvet Goldmine and Far From Heaven, has a degree in art and semiotics — perfect for a filmmaker steeped in the resonance and historic meaning of metaphor and symbolism. But he's not an overly intellectualized cineaste trapped inside his own head. He likes to have fun; he can be an incredibly provocative "jokerman," to quote from a Dylan song.
In Dylan, he has a perfect subject, too — an artist who has manipulated and controlled his own mystique-cloaked persona to the point his "periods" are almost as important to us as the solstice and equinox were to the ancients.
I'm Not There is encoded with references to Dylan's life and art, as well as to the filmmakers whose avant-garde approach to commercial movies — Jean-Luc Godard, Federico Fellini, Richard Lester, D.A. Pennebaker, Robert Altman — did so much in Haynes' view to free pop culture in the 1960s and 1970s. Just like Dylan. In one incredible short span, Haynes references Fellini's 8 1/2, Lester's A Hard Day's Night and, delightfully, the Teletubbies! In one of his boldest moves, inspired by a close reading of Greil Marcus' writings on Dylan, Haynes connects the rifle shot-like opening of "Like a Rolling Stone" to the way Godard used rifle shot-like editing to shake up devotees of the French New Wave.
Blanchett plays the doomed Jude, closely based on the Dylan of D.A. Pennebaker's black-and-white Don't Look Back — a Folk singer transforming into a blissed-out electric Rock star during a mid-1960s London tour. Here, her Jude is alternately amused by and outraged by a British press that believes he has sold out.
Elsewhere, Richard Gere is Billy, an aging outlaw who confronts the sheriff Pat Garrett in a circus town on the Western frontier. (Dylan had a small but influential, to him, role in Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.) Christian Bale is Jack, the Folk/protest singer who took Greenwich Village by storm in the early 1960s and then dropped out to become Pastor John, a leader of a small evangelical church.
Ben Whishaw is Arthur Rimbaud, the mysterious French poet who inspired Dylan. Heath Ledger is Robbie, a star Hollywood actor breaking up with artist wife Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). And in a remarkable performance, African-American child actor Marcus Carl Franklin plays young Woody in late-1950s America, who runs away from home and hops a train trying to relive the adventures and lifestyle of idol Woody Guthrie. Gregarious and outspoken, he wins friends among hobos and — after he falls into a river and escapes a shark — a wealthy, middle-class family right out of Haynes' Far From Heaven. Franklin's joyful duet with Richie Havens on "Tombstone Blues" is a highlight of the film.
Of these stories, only Robbie and Claire's feels flat. It's hard to authentically depict romantic heartbreak in a film moving as fast as this one, and Robbie seems pretty removed from Dylan.
What unifies everything, ultimately, is the thrilling use of Dylan's songs by music supervisors Randall Poster and Jim Dunbar both on the soundtrack and as performed on screen, beginning with "Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again" during an opening montage of 1960s life in Greenwich Village and ending with Antony and the Johnsons' tender reading of "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" during the closing credits.
The title itself comes from a haunting, simmering Basement Tape outtake previously unreleased but made legendary by Marcus in his book Invisible Republic. The film contains two versions — Dylan's original and a new one by Sonic Youth. Grade: A-