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Nothing so simple as an attempt to “explain” Bob Dylan, I’m Not There actually applies new layers of mystification to the former Robert Zimmerman’s self-spun myth. In splitting the protean folk-rocker into six personae, director and co-writer Todd Haynes takes some of his cues from well-known bits of Dylan lore: the romance with Joan Baez, the motorcycle accident, the conversion to Christianity, and D.A. Pennebaker’s 1967 British-tour documentary, Dont Look Back. But the director also sees his subject in terms of the cinematic eras in which Dylan has lived, so he inserts his various Dylans into minifilms that emulate the styles of Federico Fellini, Jean-Luc Godard, Sam Peckinpah, and (briefly) Richard Lester. The result is intriguing but ultimately frustrating, in large part because the movie misplaces the power of Dylan’s music.
Haynes’ Dylan manqués include Arthur (Ben Whishaw), a Rimbaud-like dandy who defends himself in court, and Jake Rollins (Christian Bale), a ’60s protest singer who later becomes evangelical Pastor John. There are also Robbie Clarke (Heath Ledger), who plays Jack in a ’60s melodrama and has a failed relationship with French artist Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), suggesting Godard’s marriage to actress-muse Anna Karina; and Billy (Richard Gere), a reclusive former outlaw whose life invokes Peckinpah’s 1973 Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (a vehicle for Dylan as both actor and musician). Haynes’ two most audacious casting choices would seem to be Marcus Carl Franklin, as an 11-year-old African-American hobo who calls himself Woody Guthrie, and Cate Blanchett, playing mid-’60s folk-rocker Jude Quinn, who’s just plugged in his guitar. The obvious point that all six are aspects of the same person is made in quick-cut montages that recur too often.
Odd as a black or female Dylan may seem in theory, the sequences featuring Franklin and Blanchett are the movie’s easiest to read. Woody lives the rambling life that Dylan used to pretend he had and blooms from the down-home roots the aspiring folkie coveted. Jude revisits moments from Pennebaker’s film, the famous 1966 Manchester show where a folk purist called the rock-tainted Dylan “Judas,” and Fellini’s meditation on artistic creation and other people’s expectations, 8½. If the Woody and Jude characters are more direct and explicable than the others, their scenes are little more than games of spot-the-reference. They even include stilted insertions of Dylan song titles into the dialogue, the way Beatles’ ones were in Across the Universe.
The most effective episodes are the ones that wander farthest from the well-documented aspects of Dylan’s life—moments that take his ’70s cowboy pose seriously, say, or fill in some of the blanks in the songwriter’s ambivalent treatment of women. While Haynes regular Julianne Moore is nothing more than a mockudrama talking head as the Baez-like Alice Fabian, Gainsbourg’s Claire suggests a complete life. That it is largely a life without her husband is one of the movie’s few poignant aspects, showing how the mythically elusive artist is just another absent dad to his wife and daughters. This chapter is where the pop-music anti-biopic turns into a woman’s picture, the director’s other speciality.
Unlike Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine, which riffed on David Bowie, Iggy Pop, and Lou Reed, I’m Not There features songs by its inspiration. Yet they’re mostly performed by aloof indie hipsters like Sonic Youth, Stephen Malkmus, and Calexico, and thus lack the immediacy of the originals. Even Across the Universe, which vapidly rearranged the Beatles’ standards, had more musical kick than this film. Viewers who don’t know Dylan’s best work will just have to take on faith that his music once mattered, and newcomers may be tempted to assume that Haynes is fascinated by Dylan purely because he’s enigmatic.
The director splits his time between trying to interpret his subject and joining his disparate Dylans in mocking the very idea of interpretation. He even creates a British TV pundit named Mr. Jones (Bruce Greenwood) so Quinn can address “Ballad of a Thin Man” to him: “Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is.” That ambiguous generational taunt worked in 1965, but I’m Not There needs something more incisive. Instead, the movie just gets vaguer as it goes, and even a final glimpse of the real guy isn’t enough to explain why any but the most devout Dylanologist would want to visit the place Haynes calls Riddle Township.