Not once is the name Bob Dylan, or even Robert Zimmerman, the birth name of the folk legend, spoken in I’m Not There. Instead, we get Woody Guthrie (not THAT Woody Guthrie, this one is an African-American child, portrayed by Marcus Carl Franklin), Jack Rollins (Christian Bale), Jude Quinn (Cate Blanchett), Billy The Kid (yes, THAT Billy The Kid, looking like Richard Gere), actor Robbie Clark, who plays Jack Rollins (Heath Ledger), and Arthur Rimbaud (Ben Whishaw, and again, not that one). Here’s the catch: All of these characters present another side of Bob Dylan. We move from the Greenwich Village folk-star and anointed “voice of a generation” to the drugged out electric Dylan to the romantic Dylan and the mystery Dylan and all of the other Bob Dylans there ever were. At first, it’s somewhat chronological, as the framed narrative at least presents these pieces in order, but as it goes on, it become more and more like a free association collage as somebody—the viewers, director Todd Haynes, the film, its subject, its supporting characters, or some combination thereof—tries to categorize Dylan.
It’s a sprawling, ambitious work—as we expect a music-heavy Todd Haynes film to be after his Barbie Doll reenactments in Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story and his Citizen Kane-inspired look at David Bowie in Velvet Goldmine—and it does not always succeed, but even when it doesn’t there is still far more to look for than in most other films. The casting, not just the choice to portray Dylan with different actors, but to include Franklin and Blanchett in particular, says a great deal about the mystery of the subject. In a purely narrative sense, the inclusion of a famous actor who played folk-star Jack Collins struggling with romantic life effortlessly captures the dichotomy of Dylan the superstar and public persona vs. Dylan the human, who struggled with love as much as anyone else even as he churned out some of the greatest records ever made. Similarly, the Billy The Kid figure displays the desire to be free and not under the chains of publicity. The Jack Rollins figure, the protesting, kind-hearted hippie with an acoustic guitar hanging out in Washington Square Park could only go for so long before changing his ideals.
Of course, unless you’re already intimately familiar with Bob Dylan’s career, from his partners to the Electric Dylan Controversy to the “Judas” moment, none of this is going to make any sense to you. Haynes refuses to provide exposition, opting for documentary style exposition almost exclusively at the beginning and jumping into the lives of the “other” Dylans almost randomly. This is a film mostly for Dylan fans; it’s hard to imagine anyone else being able to connect the dots, or at least get as much from it, although when the film is at its most symbolic (Todd Haynes has a degree in semiotics), the film becomes equally difficult for everyone.
I’m Not There might have the greatest soundtrack of all time. That’s cheating, of course; it’s made up almost entirely of Dylan songs (originals and covers by everyone from Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus to Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy), but most are used to wonderful effect. In particular, a romantic montage set to Blonde On Blonde’s “I Want You” is among the most memorable sequences of its kind put to celluloid. Later, a brilliant rendition of Ballad of a Thin Man is set to a surreal sequence that briefly cuts to a Black Power gathering that elegantly and simply illuminates the myriad meanings behind the iconic tune.
When it’s all said and done, it’s hard to discern what is being said. That’s precisely how Dylan, a shape-shifter in all but the most literal sense, would likely have wanted it, but even so, the impressions resonate long after Haynes finally gives us a glimpse of Dylan, and the highs are certainly much higher than the lows are low. I’m Not There is an assaultive, mentally exhausting puzzle. The good news is that you don’t necessarily need to put all the pieces together to like what you see. This is a biopic quite unlike any other, and that’s reason alone to celebrate.