There is only one thing I know about Bob Dylan, that he’s a storyteller. His storytelling is not limited to his peerless songwriting category, but also reveals itself in interviews and public appearances. Here is a man who refuses to be defined. When reporters, documentarians and Dylanologists attempts to do so, he tells more stories, or, to put it less charitably, he lies. Though it’s not always obvious in what way.
There is one thing I know about Todd Haynes’ Dylan biopic, I’m Not There. It’s that it is not a Dylan biopic. His stories and legends are the canvas Haynes is working with, but, like Citizen Kane, the film is actually about the contradiction of trying to sum up a life in a two hour film. That six actors play Dylan representations is not a gimmick in trying to discover the enigma of Bob Dylan. It is the point of this daring and thought provoking film.
A young African-American boy named Marcus Cark Franklin plays “Woody Guthrie.” Though the real Guthrie was well known to be a major influence on Dylan, those looking for realism will note that it is unlikely that Dylan was a freight train riding black kid. It is also highly doubtful that he was swallowed by a whale. These sequences work because I’m Not There is as much about the Bob Dylan myth as the man.
Equally surreal is Richard Gere’s appearance as “Billy the Kid” to represent Dylan’s current incarnation. In reality, he’s still performing and writing vital music, but he’s not part of any current musical movement and not the celebrity idol he once was. The Gere sequence shows Dylan as a man comfortable in his own skin, but not of his own time.
One might imagine that he’s rather see himself as an aging outlaw than the highly unlikable version portrayed by Heath Ledger as “Robbie Clark,” arrogant movie star and failed family man. Christian Bale plays folk singer turned born again revivalist, “Jack Rollins” and Ben Whishaw is “Arthur Rimbaud” elusive interview subject.
The most dynamic performance however belongs to Cate Blanchett who, as “Jude Quinn” has one of the most shocking and memorable entrances in recent film memory. Blanchett erases all questions of gender by embodying the version of Dylan that we think we know best, the 1965 era superstar who revolutionized the folk and rock world by going electric. She also embodies Dylan’s caustic orneriness when dealing with the press.
As director, Todd Haynes weaves all these disparate elements into a coherent narrative that takes wonderful advantage of Dylan’s song catalog and perfectly mimics the look of its various eras. One need not be a Bob Dylan fan to appreciate the remarkable achievement that is I’m Not There (though you’d get some of the inside references) because, as the title alludes, it’s not really about one man, but all of us.