Six de­grees of Dylan

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Filmreviews - MICHAEL DWYER

I’M NOT THERE Di­rected by Todd Haynes. Star­ring Chris­tian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Mar­cus Carl Franklin, Richard Gere, Heath Ledger, Ben Whishaw, Char­lotte Gains­bourg, Ju­lianne Moore, Michelle Wil­liams, Bruce Green­wood Club, IFI, Dublin, 135 min

TWO years ago, Martin Scors­ese’s doc­u­men­tary, No Di­rec­tion Home, re­mained riv­et­ing for four hours even though it of­fered few in­sights into the enigma that is Bob Dylan. Ear­lier this year Hay­den Christensen played a thinly dis­guised Dylan in Fac­tory Girl, which got the in­ci­den­tal de­tails right but ven­tured no fur­ther.

Trust Todd Haynes, the ad­ven­tur­ous di­rec­tor of Safe and Far from Heaven, to go the dis­tance with I’m Not There, which takes its ti­tle from a boot­legged Dylan track on The Base­ment Tapes.

When Haynes started out as a writer-di­rec­tor in 1987, he made Su­per­star, deal­ing with singer-drum­mer Karen Car­pen­ter and the anorexia ner­vosa that killed her. His eerie, emo­tional film was pop­u­lated with Bar­bie dolls be­cause of the mes­sage those toys send out about ac­cept­able body images.

An open­ing credit on I’m Not There states that it was “in­spired by the mu­sic and many lives of Bob Dylan”. Given that Dylan rein­vented him­self so of­ten, Haynes imag­i­na­tively chose six ac­tors to en­act those many lives. (Dylan’s name is never ac­tu­ally men­tioned.)

The au­da­cious na­ture of this en­ter­prise is em­pha­sised in es­tab­lish­ing the first Dylan sur­ro­gate, a charm­ing 11-yearold black boy (Mar­cus Carl Franklin) who rides the rails with ho­bos, in­tro­duces him­self as Woody Guthrie and car­ries a gui­tar case em­bla­zoned “This ma­chine kills Fas­cists”.

Next up is Dylan as a 19-yearold poet (Ben Whishaw) who calls him­self Arthur Rim­buad. He is fol­lowed by Jack Rollins, an early-1960s folk singer her­alded by the New York Times as the “trou­ba­dour of con­science” and played in the film’s most con­vinc­ing im­per­son­ation of Dylan, phys­i­cally and in speak­ing and singing voices, by the re­doubtable Chris­tian Bale.

Heath Ledger ably takes over as Dylan’s next in­car­na­tion, a wom­an­is­ing ac­tor, be­fore Haynes brings on his most dar­ing cast­ing. Cate Blanchett re­sponds in­ge­niously to the chal­lenge, an­drog­y­nous with friz­zled hair, polka dot shirt and tight tweed jacket. Fi­nally, and least suc­cess­fully, in a town em­blem­at­i­cally called Rid­dle and cre­ated with all the ar­ti­fice of a movie set, there is the older, griz­zled Dylan (Richard Gere), named af­ter Billy the Kid in a ref­er­ence to the Sam Peck­in­pah west­ern that fea­tured Dylan.

The times they are a-chang­ing, and change is the re­cur­ring theme through­out I’m Not There, which is as thought­ful as it is play­ful: change in Dylan’s var­i­ous per­sonal re­la­tion­ships (“I wor­ship women; ev­ery­one should have one,” he quips); when he hor­ri­fies his fol­low­ers by turn­ing from acous­tic to elec­tric gui­tar; when he is de­rided as mid­dle-class for aban­don­ing so­cial­ist themes. And he is still asked, “Why don’t you do your old stuff?”

Haynes art­fully draws a por­trait of the artist at the points when his life and mu­sic in­ter­sect. He achieves this with a depth of cu­rios­ity and a good sense of hu­mour, draw­ing on myths, sup­po­si­tions, in­ter­pre­ta­tions and apocryphal tales, and on facts.

The film is suf­fused with enough ref­er­ences to sate an avid Dy­la­nol­o­gist. Some will sail over the heads of view­ers, but Haynes sus­tains the fas­ci­na­tion with his sub­ject. There’s so much more in the film than ini­tially meets the eye (and ear), that this tan­ta­lis­ing ex­per­i­ment should prove even more sat­is­fy­ing the sec­ond time around.

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