When it was first announced that Todd Haynes, the idiosyncratic mind behind the deconstructionist dramas Safe and Far from Heaven, was tackling the life and times of one Bob “Zimmerman” Dylan, few balked. Sure the protest poet laureate and last legitimate link to the more idealistic and inventive elements of the ‘60s seemed like an unusual choice for the filmmaker, but this was a man who had previously tackled the days and death of Karen Carpenter, and a revisionist view of Iggy/Bowie glam rock. So a musician, even one of his import, wasn’t out of the question. No, what raised many eyebrows was Haynes’ decision to cast five different actors as Dylan, including a young black boy and a woman (actress Cate Blanchett). Again, few should have stirred. This is the man, after all, who used Barbie dolls to tell the tragic story of the anorexic AOR star. A little invention should have been anticipated.
What couldn’t have been predicted is how brilliant the end result would be. I’m Not There, a vignette oriented tale of the folk singing troubadour told in distinct personality ‘acts’ is wildly over the top and often too enraptured by its own chutzpah. It shouts when it should whisper and defies when it should redefine. But when it’s wrapped up in a visual grace this astounding, and populated with performances that actually boggle the mind, we can forgive the loftier, sometimes loony ambitions. Breaking down Dylan’s personality into his roots (African American adolescent Marcus Carl Franklin), his workingman blues (a fierce Christian Bale), his poetic side (Ben Whishaw), his superstar sizzle (the magnificent Ms. Blanchett), his personal life struggles (Heath Ledger), and his old age iconography (Richard Gere), we get biography as ballyhoo, the truth tempered by the surrounding myths, folklore, rumors and innuendos that tend to make up a legend’s aura.
It all takes a bit of getting used to at first. While Haynes tosses in enough asides, in-jokes, and visual cues to keep us connected, seeing a small boy of color mimic Dylan’s earliest poses is just flat out puzzling. As he makes his way from locale to locale, hoping trains and trading war stories with his fellow hobos, we see the dream being formed in a young Minnesota child’s head. But that doesn’t explain the weird, almost off kilter design. Dylan’s youth wasn’t factually similar to the events that happen here. Instead, Haynes appears to be reaching across a more metaphysical interpretation of the man’s make-up. He may have been an old soul at a very young age, but there was much more calculation in the musician’s career arc than how it’s portrayed in this section.
Once we get to Bale, however, the cinematic stars literally align. Frankly, had Haynes decided to make a straightforward biopic with the superb UK young gun as his muse, no one would have complained. He’s got the Greenwich glower of the coffee house Dylan down pat, and when he lip syncs to versions of the bard’s best songs, he really does capture the subject’s stern determinism. Granted, Bale is a little too hunky to play the whisper thin folkie (all that Batman bulk just can’t be hidden), but from an inner angst standpoint, he’s amazing. So is Heath Ledger, as long as we’re talking about enigmatic men. Alongside Gere (who we’ll get to in a moment), the too pretty Aussie performer has a very odd chapter to deliver. He’s the private Dylan – married man, cheat, father, deadbeat – and it’s often not a pretty picture. Indeed, there are times when we think we’ve stumbled into a classic kitchen sinker, not some manner of musician overview.
And then Cate Blanchett arrives. To call her work here magnificent is too undeserving an understatement. She is regal, almost unrecognizable. She masterfully morphs into the pot-scented genius who ruled his world with a typewriter and a six string. She is I’m Not There’s trump card, its piecemeal paradigm of fame, disillusion, influence, and flaws. If there is any justice in the award season shuffle (and Lord knows there usually isn’t) she’d win the Oscar as both Best Actress and Actor. Again, Haynes could have simply hired the Australian beauty and built an entire narrative around her pre-electrified edifice. During a fictional recreation of Dylan’s disastrous Newport Jazz Festival plug-in, Blanchett is so callous and cool we can feel the vibe resonating off the screen. If she manages to go unrecognized throughout the year end Best Ofs, it’s a critical crime.
This just leaves Whishaw and Gere. Of the two, the Perfume: Story of a Murderer star comes off best. He’s not given much to do. He simply stares at the camera and reads off a list of inspired Dylan witticisms. He definitely looks the part – naïve wordsmith playing with his philosophies – but his purpose is much harder to define. Things are even worse for Gere. Clearly the weakest link in this material, his Dylan as resident of a surreal turn of the century backwater burg is supposed to be referencing a combination of the artist’s ‘70s stigma (aging rock act) with dribs and drabs of Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. The Wild West inferences seem especially odd, particularly when the midsection of his career is so intriguing (we do see Bale, momentarily reprising his role, during Dylan’s conversion to Christianity).
In fact, anyone coming to I’m Not There hoping to see a realistic, fact-based overview of the seminal pop culture figure’s life will be antsy within the first five minutes. This is not Walk the Line, or even Ray. It’s more like Lisztomania, and other outrageous biographical freak shows created by that cinematic savant Ken Russell. In fact, with a few more bloody crucifixes and a rasher of naked girls, this could be a hidden gem from the now 80 year old English oddball. Haynes treats his creative canvas like a slightly less sloppy Pollack, infusing his images with a contrasting color/black and white visual friction that breeds both contemplation and contempt. Even more confusing, we get actual Dylan recordings juxtaposed against obvious imitators. It’s as if Haynes decided to throw out the motion picture playbook this time and simply go on instinct. Luckily, most of his impulses are dead on.
Of course, none of this addresses I’m Not There’s lingering question – will anyone outside the Dylan devotees and fans of aesthetically challenging cinema find this film entertaining. It does occasionally feel like a work of wounded art that experts stand around and shame you into enjoying. For every life affirming sequence of Blanchett paling around with a cartoonish bunch of Beatles (or the time when she calls the Rolling Stones “that cover band”), there are instances when you wonder what the positively 4th street is going on. Then, just as Gere is dragging down the entire experience, Haynes interjects one of Whishaw’s rants, or puts Ledger back into failed family man mode, and all is forgiven.
If you want a realistic recreation of Dylan’s cultural impact, of how he turned a love of Woody Guthrie and traditional music into a significant social stance, grab a copy of Martin Scorsese’s magnificent documentary No Direction Home and enjoy. If, on the other hand, you don’t mind a wonderful, if slightly uneven, look at how one man becomes many, figuratively redefining his art along the way, stick with I’m Not There. It’s a daring, difficult masterwork.