All about Bob

Todd Haynes dives deep into Dylan with I'm Not There

It's not that I'm anti–Bob Dylan. I've just never been a fan in particular. I'm too young or too fond of metal or too shallow or some combination of the three. But I found I'm Not There — Todd Haynes's sorta biopic of the icon — entirely fascinating. By now you've heard the pitch: six actors (Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Marcus Carl Franklin, Richard Gere, Heath Ledger, and Ben Whishaw) play facets of Dylan without actually playing Dylan, though Bale and Blanchett come dangerously close. The movie begins with the death of this nebulous character, identifiable only by his distinctive mop of dark curls, and a somber narrator informing us, "Even the ghost was more than one person." And I'm Not There is nearly more than one movie, with different film stocks, casts, tones, and styles deftly stitched together by Dylan's music (performed, appropriately enough, by an array of artists).

Perhaps you didn't realize that one of Dylan's personae is an African American boy (Franklin) obsessed with boxcars, guitars, and Woody Guthrie. Strangers are drawn to this nostalgic little soul, including a kindly woman who feeds him before sternly advising him to "live your own time." This sweet tale, filmed in warm hues with touches of magical realism, is a more abstract reading of Dylan — unlike the story of Jack Rollins (Bale), which is told documentary-style and features Julianne Moore as a Joan Baez clone reminiscing about Jack's impact on the 1960s Greenwich Village folk scene. He was a visionary, using traditional folk stylings to comment on contemporary concerns. His life becomes intertwined with the showbiz fate of Robbie Clark (Ledger), a James Dean–ish young actor whose starring role in a Jack Rollins biopic catapults him to stardom.

After a freewheeling courtship — with montage-spun happiness undermined by televisions constantly broadcasting the Vietnam War — Robbie marries Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who later leaves him when fame and ego turn him into something of an asshole. But aside from big-head syndrome, Robbie's worst offense is saying that women can't be poets. The sins of Jude (Cate Blanchett) are far dirtier, and it's no coincidence that Jude's saga — a black-and-white British tour from hell, with snooty reporters and drug-enhanced moments of surreality — is I'm Not There's most magnetic segment.

Sexy androgyne Blanchett's probably got her next Supporting Actress win sewn up with this one, or she should. Her performance is the heart of the movie — snarling, weary, uncanny, and able to make David Cross's hairy cameo as Allen Ginsberg seem totally logical. Don't Look Back would be the most obvious frame of reference here, but Haynes is less interested in Dylan's performances or fans than his inner conflicts. It's hard to sing about the oppressed when you are rich, famous, and beloved. It's hard to keep your head on your shoulders when everyone views you as the voice of a generation. It's hard to be patient when the Man (Bruce Greenwood — OK, his character has a name, but he's the Man nonetheless) digs into your past, unable to beat you in a war of words but smugly proud of finding dirt that cracks your cooler-than-thou armor. Whoa, you mean his name isn't really Bob Dylan?

Less compelling are a pair of shorter segments — Whishaw as Arthur (as in Rimbaud), who pops up occasionally to drop science via actual Dylan quotes, and Gere as Billy the Kid, a retired outlaw in hiding whose Halloween-obsessed hometown appears art-directed by Tim Burton. As in other chapters, there are surely nuances that sailed past me but that Dylan obsessives will seize on.

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