If Bob Dylan were a real movie director (he’s tried it a couple of times, with 1972’s Eat the Document and 1978’s Renaldo and Clara), I’m Not There is probably the movie he’d make about his own life: discontinuous narratives running backward and forward in time, multiple actors playing Dylan under different names, identities adopted and shed, story lines merging fact and fiction, a backdrop of American styles and myths. Todd Haynes’s beautiful, funny, frustrating film — “inspired by the many lives of Bob Dylan,” as an opening credit says — is not so much about Bob Dylan as about what we think about when we think about Dylan.
VIDEO: The trailer for I'm Not There
As Haynes drives backward and forward through time, he teases with the known — or at least oft-repeated — “facts,” giving Dylan unreal or impossible counter-identities: Jack (Christian Bale), the young protest folkie who disappears and later returns a born-again Christian evangelist; Woody (Marcus Carl Franklin), an 11-year-old African-American who’s adopted the persona of Woody Guthrie; Jude (Cate Blanchett), the wired Dylan-gone-electric of 1965. Ben Whishaw plays a teenage Dylan named Arthur Rimbaud appearing before a board of grim-faced interlocutors. Robby (Heath Ledger) isn’t even a musician but an actor whose debut starring role is in a bio-pic about Jack. And Richard Gere is a Billy the Kid Dylan on the lam in a town called Riddle, Missouri.
Haynes’s filmmaking is fluid, even lyric, as he moves among stories, alternating color sequences with black-and-white. We see Jude in the hand-held black-and-white of D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back in restaged fictional versions of some of the well-known scenes from that documentary about the 1965 English tour. Blanchett’s is the most flamboyant Dylan, in his polka-dot shirt and tight mod wool suit, rattling on speed. At a lavish English estate, the cinematography turns all 8-1/2: deep focus, dreamlike horizontal tracking shots, and the bulbous inquisitory faces of fops and matrons sucking up to Jude. This sequence also gets the biggest laugh — a scene with a knife-wielding disaffected fan in a hotel room turns slapstick, and Blanchett gets to deadpan: “Just like a woman.”
Haynes plays out Dylan’s life like a dreamscape, sustaining sequences for scenes at a time, but also cross-cutting them, flashes from one story intruding briefly on another. Some of the most moving moments come in the conventional domestic drama of the “Woodstock” Dylan’s story, the marriage of Robby and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) breaking up against the backdrop of Vietnam and Nixon. Least satisfying are the Riddle passages: they’re an embodiment of the “old, weird America” that Greil Marcus has written about regarding Dylan’s relationship to American myth — a Fellini Western.
Part of what makes this movie cohere is, no surprise, the use of Dylan’s music. The metaphors of “Idiot Wind” take on literal narrative truth as they’re played against Robby and Claire’s crumbling marriage. And when impostor-child Woody visits the real, dying Woody Guthrie in the hospital as Dylan’s “Blind Willie McTell” plays in the background before dissolving into footage of police dogs being set on civil-rights demonstrators, Haynes captures the Dylan — and the old, weird America — of our dreams and nightmares.