Six degrees of Dylan
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.