In 1998, Todd Haynes released Velvet Goldmine, a rapturous but prickly ode to glam-rock that referenced genre stars such as David Bowie and Iggy Pop but clung to a fan's perspective.
He tries something similar with I'm Not There, a pop meditation "inspired by the music & many lives of Bob Dylan" that is less concerned with presenting Dylan's life in a realistic sense than on ruminating on the character of Dylan as experienced by his most ardent fans.
To do this, Haynes employs six actors — Christian Bale, Richard Gere, Ben Whishaw, Heath Ledger, Cate Blanchett, and African-American adolescent Marcus Carl Franklin — to play otherwise unconnected roles (none of them named "Bob Dylan") that each embody a different facet of Dylan's protean public persona.
Bale is the early, serious folkie Dylan in his first signs of dissatisfaction with the earnestness of the scene. Ledger is an actor who played lead in a "Dylan" biopic whose real life — in his courtship, marriage, and break-up with a sad-eyed lady of the lowlands played beautifully by Charlotte Gainsbourg — represents the most widely known segment of Dylan's own domestic life. Whishaw plays a man in an interrogation-style interview who claims to be (Dylan influence) Arthur Rimbaud. Franklin is a boxcar-hopping musician who dubs himself "Woody" after Woody Guthrie and eventually visits the great folksinger (as Dylan did) on his deathbed. Blanchett is a scream as the most iconic of Dylan figures, the messy-haired mid-Sixties rock prophet. And Gere — in a dull recurring segment that threatens to stop the movie dead — actually plays an aging Billy the Kid in a reference to the film Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, which Dylan acted in and provided music for.
Through the weaving of these six sections, Haynes touches on reams of Dylan lore, iconography, and soundbites — his electric folk-festival debut, being called "Judas" in London, his relationship with Joan Baez, his motorcycle accident, his chauvinism, his embrace of Christianity, etc. The Blanchett scenes are the strongest, filmed in black-and-white to make them not just a reference to that period of Dylan's career but to the way it's been perceived through the lens of D.A. Pennebaker's documentary Don't Look Back.
The result is probably the most personal and most ambitious musical "biopic" ever attempted. For remotely obsessive Dylan fans, it's endlessly compelling, if not always successful. For more casual fans, it's likely to be entirely inexplicable.
I'm Not There
Opens Wednesday, November 21st
Studio on the Square