‘I’m Not There’

Everybody involved must have got stoned


A bio-pic is difficult to get right, but a bio-pic of a living musical legend — in this case Bob Dylan — seems too daunting to contemplate.

With “I’m Not There,” however, director Todd Haynes pulls it off with the cunning audacity of a master card-player. The result is a fiendishly clever package that dazzles the mind but, in the end, remains curiously remote and elusive; Haynes returns all cards to the deck, the lights come on and it’s as if the movie never happened.

This is probably the effect Haynes was aiming for. After the brilliant kaleidoscope of images he conjures onto the screen, Haynes literally cuts the ground out from under our feet. The experience is exhilarating but leaves you feeling gypped somehow. . . . So, was that really Bob Dylan?

“I’m Not There” is a Dylan song unreleased until this movie came along (it’s on the soundtrack) and there’s no better sentiment to suit this bio-pic that never was. Or is. Whatever.

I'm Not There
Director Todd Haynes
Run Time 135 minutes
Language English

Six characters play six different periods, or levels, in the life of Bob Dylan. There’s Arthur (a very atmospheric Ben Wishaw), who spews Dylan quotes at the camera while professing to be Arthur Rimbaud, the 19th-century French poet whose works were one of Dylan’s major sources of inspiration; Woodie (Marcus Carl Franklin) takes his name from Woodie Guthrie, another huge influence in Dylan’s life; here he’s shown as a 10-year-old black boy traveling through the country by rail, mostly in box-cars and in the company of hobos who cheer at the boy’s remarkable guitar skills; Jack (Christian Bale) starts out as a New York folk singer with a social conscience, before refashioning himself into a born-again Christian preacher; based on Joan Baez, Dylan’s one-time rival and friend in the folk music scene, Jack’s religious conversion also mirrors a time in Dylan’s own life.

The film zigzags on in this vein, and the fragments/personalities connect surprisingly well though, at times, it’s hard to sustain the belief that all of these characters represent the same man.

There is a fine balance between Dylan’s career-dictated public side and his private life, the details of which remain sketchy and unpublicized. Haynes fills in the blanks with dexterity if not a whole lot of imagination — Robbie (played by an excellent Heath Ledger) is an actor who finds love and marriage with French painter Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), only to sink later into the cycle of bickerings and infidelity, followed by a custody battle over their children.

Robbie represents a phase in Dylan’s life when he acted in several movies and lorded over the artsy East Village scene, behaving like a dedicated liberal while having no qualms about leaving Claire at home to cook and change diapers. Robbie’s segment overlaps with Jude (Cate Blanchett), an American rock star on tour in London.

Blanchett’s Jude is the closest Haynes comes to re-enacting the real Dylan: The press conference, where Jude is accused of selling out, is duplicated almost word for word from the one Dylan actually held. The star’s insecurities, his callousness and seething despair come to the fore during a party given later that night, and in a hotel room filled with Jude’s friends, agent and hangers-on.

In one fantastic scene, Jude is being badgered by a snide, self-righteous BBC interviewer (Sam Neill) in a stretch limo while Allen Ginsberg (David Cross) cruises alongside on a motorcycle, striking up a conversation with Jude (who cranes his neck out the window) about the meaning of life. Boosted by the encounter, Jude later has a gleeful little chat with the figure of Christ on the cross: “Come on down from there, don’t be a sell out, do your earlier stuff!”

The jarring note in this otherwise seamless operation comes from Billy the Kid (Richard Gere), whose segment is loosely based on the time Dylan secluded himself in Woodstock. This feels like a separate movie tacked on for reasons unknown. It’s not Billy’s story that feels alien so much as Gere’s presence; he doesn’t come off as anyone but a Gere character, in direct contrast to Blanchett who obliterates every facet of her persona to become Bob Dylan.

But by the end credits all evidence of even her mighty craft has vanished, leaving only the jingle-jangle of a Dylan song you may or may not have heard blowin’ in the wind before.