While driving across country a few years ago, filmmaker Todd Haynes decided to get reacquainted with an old friend. The man’s music had always meant something to him, but he never really made the link between the breadth of what he accomplished (and continued to do so) vs. the scope of how he changed the cultural landscape. The name Bob Dylan still demands the kind of respect worthy of a major historical icon, and he continues to make meaningful contributions to the craft of songwriting. But once Haynes began to dig into his four decade long catalog, he realized that there was more to this man than just his art. For his entire career, Dylan was a shapeshifting chameleon who used his place and position to explore many facets of the American experience. As a result, any biography would have to examine him from as many perspectives as possible.
Thus, I’m Not There was born, a sinfully rich reduction of everything Bob Dylan meant to music since his folk revisionism hit New York’s Village in the late ‘50s. Breaking down the man’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), his conversion to Christianity (Bale again) 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 this legend’s ample aura. Using nods to films and filmmakers of the specific era, Haynes wraps everything up in a visual grace that is astounding, and then populates it with performances that actually boggle the mind.
For Haynes, perhaps best known as the idiosyncratic mind behind the deconstructionist dramas Safe and Far from Heaven, tackling the life and times of one Bob “Zimmerman” Dylan, was not really a stretch. This was a man who had previously unraveled the days and death of Karen Carpenter, and a fairytale view of Iggy/Bowie glam rock. So a musician, even one of his import, wasn’t out of the question. Yet the decision to go with several different actors, including a young black boy and a woman raised a few eyebrows. Then 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. Yet many did question the multilayered motivation. Luckily, we now have a medium that allows for Haynes to provide some backstory.
It all takes a bit of getting used to at first. While Haynes tosses in all these asides, in-jokes, and visual cues to keep us connected, seeing a small boy of color mimic Dylan’s earliest poses is still visually puzzling. As he makes his way from locale to locale, hoping trains and trading war stories with his fellow hobos, we can just see the dream being formed in a young child’s impressionable 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. Thanks to the commentary, everything is made clear. In fact, I’m Not There becomes the Gravity’s Rainbow of rock star bio-pics thanks to this DVD overview.
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 the late, great Heath Ledger, as long as we’re talking about enigmatic men. His was and remains a hard chapter to deliver. He’s the private Dylan – married man, cheat, father, deadbeat – and it’s often not a pretty picture. In fact, the emotions are so raw that Haynes chokes up when revisiting the actor’s work.
And then Cate Blanchett arrives. To call her turn 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. 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. In the second disc’s deleted/extended/alternative scenes, we can see how her performance grew. The auditions and interview material also provide some insight into how a glamorous beauty turned into an androgynous ‘60s stalwart.
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 via Arthur Rambeau witticisms. He definitely looks the part – naïve wordsmith playing with his philosophies – but without the commentary, his purpose would be much harder to define. Things are even worse for Gere - until now. In theaters, he was the weakest link in this material, his Dylan as resident of the aforementioned surreal turn of the century backwater burg. The carnival 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). Luckily, Haynes is there to uncover the many mysteries.
One needs to remember that I’m Not There is definitely not a realistic, fact-based overview of the seminal pop culture figure’s life. 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.
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. Thanks to its treatment on DVD, what was a daring, difficult masterwork becomes a certified masterpiece.