I was just a lick too young to be a Bob Dylan fan the way friends of mine a few years older were. My musical heroes were the Beatles and the Stones and all things Motown. So I first became fully conscious of Dylan's music when he released Nashville Skyline in 1969, a remarkable ignorance on my part when I consider the enduringly great music he created before that. But as a result of not having focused on Dylan when I was younger, I am only passingly familiar with his complicated life. That makes me an imperfect viewer for director Todd Haynes' unorthodox Dylan biography I'm Not There. Those who have followed the almost infinite permutations in Dylan's persona will no doubt see more in the film than I can. Those who arrive at the picture largely ignorant of the details of Dylan's life will leave in a cloud of confusion. Written by Haynes with Oren Moverman, I'm Not There takes an unusual approach to dramatizing the events of a man's life. Haynes cast six different actors to portray Dylan in his various stages and adopted guises. Moreover, he calls none of them Bob Dylan or even Robert Allen Zimmerman, Dylan's birth name and the one he used growing up in Minnesota and through his freshman year of college. The result is alternately arresting and perplexing. The pre-public Dylan is an 11-year-old runaway, played by the precocious young African-American actor Marcus Carl Franklin. This child Dylan lives not in small-town middle America but in railroad cars and circus tents. He calls himself Woody Guthrie after his hero.
Ben Whishaw plays a pale and nervous pretender named Arthur Rimbaud who speaks in riddles and affects a worldliness he almost certainly lacks. Christian Bale is the breakthrough folksinger and songwriter Jack Rollins, the Dylan of 'Blowin' in the Wind" and 'The Times They Are a Changin'," and later reappears as Pastor Jack, a proselytizing Dylan from his born again Christian period in the late '70s.
Cate Blanchett and Heath Ledger are the flip sides of Dylan's persona from approximately 1965-1975. As Jude Quinn, Blanchett brilliantly captures the look and posture of Dylan in his Carnaby Street period. It is Jude who abandons acoustic for electric and folk for rock 'n' roll, Jude who cavorts with the Beatles and Jude who exasperates the press with what must surely have been Dylan's deliberately provocative nonsense. For the same years Ledger plays a rugged, macho Robbie Clark, an actor (his first major role is in the biography of Jack Rollins) who falls in love with and marries a French painter (Charlotte Gainsbourg) with whom he has children and something approaching a conventional home and family life. Clark can't stop sleeping with his co-stars, however, and ultimately loses his marriage even though we're to understand that he never stops loving his wife. Clark is the kind of sexist who professes to adore women but apparently sees them only as sex objects.
The sixth incarnation of Dylan is played by Richard Gere who is an aging movie actor portraying Billy the Kid in a Western. On the surface, I can make no connection between Dylan's life and the Gere passages in this film save to note that Dylan wrote the songs and had a minor role in Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Perhaps Gere is supposed to represent Dylan as 'forever young," physically aging but still succeeding in a young person's business, the mythic Billy the Kid on a wilderness trail, Dylan forever on a concert tour. I'm Not There is the kind of movie that provokes the viewer into such speculation.
I saw D.A. Pennebaker's 1967 Don't Look Back when it was re-released about a decade ago, and I remember thinking what a selfish, self-important jerk Bob Dylan was. I'm Not There does nothing to change my mind. Speaking for Joan Baez, who loved Dylan and gave him his early breaks, the picture advances Julianne Moore as Alice Fabian to tell us what an ingrate Jack Rollins was. Here and elsewhere we wonder what drove Todd Haynes to make this movie. He delivers his indictment in a different way, but what the film reveals is never flattering. The title and the Woody Guthrie and Billy the Kid passages suggest that Dylan is ultimately unknowable, and though perhaps accurate, that's not terribly satisfying. I won't deny being engaged, but I was not enlightened. Devoted Dylan fans may spot delights I missed. But I didn't need this movie to let me know that we should focus on the music rather than the man.
- 2007 The Weinstein Company
- Cate Blanchett captures Dylan during one of the more enigmatic phases of his career.