Bob Dylan is one really weird guy. This is a man who went from being a kid from Hibbing, Minnesota to being a folk artist, to being the voice of a generation, to being a rock and roll legend, to being a recluse, to being a born again Christian, only to emerge in the 90s as a revered musical legend. That’s a lot of changes for one person to go through; that’s why he’s such a hard person to understand and, more importantly, such a hard person to document. Martin Scorsese’s excellent PBS documentary No Direction Home needed 208 minutes in order to explain just two of these transitions. In making a dramatic biopic about Bob Dylan, many filmmakers would try to downplay all of these contradictions and transitions. The fearless and experimental filmmaker Todd Haynes however has decided to do just the opposite with I’m Not There, an unconventional but fascinating project that attempts to dissect the Dylan person by casting six different actors as the central figure.
I should start by establishing my level of experience with Bob Dylan. Like many people from generations to emerge after the height of Bob Dylan’s fame, I first embarked on a Dylan Odyssey in high school simply to see what all the fuss was about. Like most I started with his seminal album “Highway 61 Revisited” which at the time didn’t do much for me aside from “Like a Rolling Stone” which is a pretty hard track to dislike. However the question of “what’s all the fuss about?” continued to nag me, and I began to explore his folk roots. I could respect some of the political messages in this folk music but the acoustic instrumentation kind of bored me; I was a hardcore rock fan and the sound of a single guitar didn’t do much to excite me. However there was a certain something that kept making me want to come to Dylan.
The more that I’ve learned about Dylan the more I’ve come to respect him, but respecting him isn’t the same thing as liking him. I definitely love a good handful of Dylan’s greatest hits; “Like a Rolling Stone,” “All Along the Watchtower,” “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” and “Master of War” are among a select cannon of Dylan track that I definitely love. However I definitely stop far short of the praise if not worship that many people place on the guy. I like the guy and respect his work, but many people go way further with their extreme praise than I’m willing too.
I mention all this because I’m Not There is definitely a film for Dylan’s existing fans. Unless you’re already familiar to some degree with Dylan and his career, this movie will be nearly incoherent. That’s not to say you need to be an expert, but you will need to know the basic outline of his life story. The No Direction Home documentary was just enough of a prerequisite for me to mostly understand the film, and you may also want to read through Dylan’s Wikipedia page before you go.
The film uses an outlandishly unique style that greatly differentiates it from conventional music biopics like Walk the Line. This is less of an exploration of Dylan’s life than it is about his persona and particularly its evolution. To do this, Todd Haynes has created six characters that represent separate Dylan personas. Each of these six characters is played by a different person and is shot with a different film stock. None of these characters are actually named Bob Dylan and it is questionable whether they are actually supposed to be linked. This isn’t nearly as disorienting as it sounds and there is a method to this madness. The problem though, is that some of these segments work better than others.
The first segment depicts a young Dylan as played by an eleven year old African American child named Marcus Carl Franklin. This young man, who goes by the name Woody Guthrie, is meant to represent the Dylan youth of myth rather than reflect his actual childhood. This is why Haynes went to the extreme length of changing Dylan’s race, it is meant to show that these stories Dylan made up about his youth were supposed to be outlandish, that they were never meant to be taken seriously. These segments, shot in lush 35mm, are actually some of the most enjoyable parts of the movie. It is really understandable why Dylan would make up this type of story, it’s some of the most entertaining stuff here. Franklin, interestingly gives one of the film’s most memorable and interesting performances, this kid may have a good future ahead of him.
The second person to play Dylan is the relatively unknown Ben Whishaw. Whishaw probably has the least screen time of all these characters and his character is less specifically tied to any single period in Dylan’s life. His character, Arthur Rimbaud, appears to be Dylan before fame but after he emerged on the New York folk scene. These portions of the film are shot on grainy, cheap looking black and white film stock in a fashion that appears to be mimicking the D.A. Pennebaker documentary Don’t Look Back. Rimbaud mainly enters into the film time to time via interview footage in order to act as something of a conscience for the various characters.
The third portion of the film, and one of the less compelling shows Dylan during his glory folk days. Here he is called Jack Rollins and is played by Christian Bale. Haynes doesn’t seem to have many insights into Dylan at this stage. The Rollins version mainly only seems to be here in order to establish his relationships, and act as a face during a somewhat misguided diversion into mockumentary. This is also the only version of the character that is allowed to change without switching actors. It is Rollins as played by Bale, not some other performer, who is present during the Christian part of Dylans life. This was mainly done to underscore that this born-again version of Dylan really was the same guy who wrote “Blowing in the Wind.” Bale appropriately looks more like the real Dylan than any of the other actors. In the movie Blae looks nearly identical to Dylan’s photograph on the cover of “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.” However Bale is never really given the screen time to do much with his performance other than imitate. Also problematic is the aforementioned mockumentary footage which slows down the film and is a little to cute about replacing Dylan’s name with the name Jack Rollins.
The fourth and probably most talked about persona is that of Jude Quinn, as played by Cate Blanchet. I don’t know what Todd Haynes was smoking when he came up with the idea of casting Cate Blanchet as Bob Dylan, but I’m glad he was smoking it, as this is one of the most compelling potions of the film. Jude Quinn represents Dylan as he went electric and was shunned for it. These segments, shot in slick high contrast black and white, take a surreal approach and borrow the visual style of Fellini’s 8 ½. These segments work the best mainly because they contain the most interesting conflict throughout the film. Quinn finds himself at odds with his fans massively over-reacting as he tries to change his musical style. This conflict eventually manifests itself in Quinn’s war of words with a spiteful journalist played by Bruce Greenwood named Keenan Jones (yes, the Mr. Jones). Cate Blanchet’s give one of the most unique and interesting you’re likely to see for a while; she not only gets the look and mannerisms of “Blonde on Blonde” era Dylan, but she also manages to convey his internal struggles very well. Interesting as this persona is, a little bit of it goes a long way, and this is where the film started to drag a little bit. There is one really unpleasant scene in some kind of art gallery with Dylan tripping out, that really tried my patience.
The next persona is that of Robbie Clark as played by Heath Ledger. This is the persona of Dylan as he exited the public eye and focused on more personal troubles. Interestingly, Clark is not supposed to be a musician as these other personas were, but rather an actor who co-stared with him in a movie called Grain of Salt. The idea here is that this is the real Dylan finally emerging while the other personas were all roles to some degree. Ledger pretty effectively plays on of the most down to earth roles in the film, and is also the best part of these segments. This portion is where the film began to confuse me a little, possibly because my main resource on Dylan’s life was No Direction Home which cut off after Dylan’s motorcycle accident. Ledger is what really keeps this portion working because this is where the film really begins to drag.
The sixth and final segment of the film frankly makes the casting of Blanchet seem completely natural. This portion features Richard Gere as Billy the Kid. Billy roams through some vast landscape modeled somewhat after the old west, but decorated like some kind of crazy circus. The setting seems to be some kind of crazy Americana mishmash. What occurs at this point is completely surreal and trippy. I’m sure Haynes had some sort of grandiose intention for this scene, but to be perfectly honest, it mostly just weirded me out. Clearly this has something to do with Dylan’s role in Sam Peckenpah’s Pat Garret and Billy the Kid, but I frankly can’t figure out what the point is otherwise except that it leads to a fairly nifty ending that brings everything full circle.
Unlike the pretentious and plodding musical biopic La Vie En Rose, Haynes has a very compelling reason for employing such an outlandish format. The film is about changes, why Dylan changed and how Dylan changed. The use of different actors accentuates these changes in a way that makes it very easy to separate them over the course of the film. The film places many of these segments out of chronological order, but unlike La Vie En Rose (which used such a tactic for seemingly no reason other than to differentiate it from other biopics), this is done for a very specific reason. Had Haynes maintained a chronological order the film would have felt extremely episodic, almost like a collection of short films rather than a single whole. Also unlike La Vie En Rose this chronology never felt disorienting because of the multiple actors and film stocks (although in all fairness to La Vie En Rose, I knew significantly more about Dylan ahead of time than I did about Edith Piaf).
Those looking for musical performances of major Dylan hits may go away disappointed. I’m Not There’s soundtrack focuses more on album tracks than on major hits. “Blowing in the Wind” and “All Along the Watchtower” only make very brief appearances and “Like a Rolling stone” isn’t heard until the end credits. However the film is not without its musical moments. There is a very nice, if brief, bluesy take on “Tombstone Blues” during the Marcus Carl Franklin segment, and there’s a very well performed version of the song “Pressing on” from Dylan’s mostly forgotten Christian period during Christian Bale segment. But the real musical highlight here comes during a great montage in the Cate Blanchet segment where “The Ballad of a Thin Man” is performed by the Cate Blanchet persona as Mr. Jones finds himself embarrassed and begins to fight back.
I’m Not There is a sprawling, ambitious film that sometimes feels like a bit of a glorious mess. What’s missing here is the happy ending where Dylan emerges from obscurity in the 90s to make Grammy winning albums like Time Out of Mind. Martin Scorsese wisely choose to end his No Direction Home documentary at Dylan’s motorcycle accident giving it a fairly simple rise and fall narrative. In going pat this point but not as far as Dylan’s 90s comeback, Haynes has basically made a film about how Dylan went from being the voice of a generation to being a boring jerk, and that is not a particularly compelling character arc.
Of the six narratives, I loved the Franklin one, was indifferent to the Whitshaw one, had grave problems with the Bale segments, felt mixed feelings about the Blanchet parts, slight boredom during the Ledger parts, and was downright confused by the Richard Gere parts. A simple tally of this would seem to suggest I rather disliked I’m Not There, but that’s not really the case. Even in the segments that didn’t really seem to work as a whole there were a lot of moments that I really loved and the whole film generally manages to flow with a certain disjointed energy. There are a lot of good and interesting performances here that are well worth checking out. The film is definitely worth checking out if only to admire Todd Haynes’ genuine experimentation but one should be warned that your enjoyment of the film would seem to be directionally proportional to how much you like Dylan. Like my own opinion Dylan himself, there is a lot here to turn me off, but also a lot of individual parts that I really liked. It’s a film that keeps making me want to come back to it in my mind, if only out of respect.
*** out of four