I’m Not There is fantastic, in all senses of the word, exploring one of the most alluring stories in modern American history—the rise of Bob Dylan.
The film is difficult to digest in just one sitting, and just as hard to summarize. Writer/director Todd Haynes searches for the essence of Dylan’s identities, secrets and dreams through a fictionalized vision of his life, split among seven characters portrayed by six actors (Marcus Carl Franklin, Ben Whishaw, Heath Ledger, Christian Bale, Richard Gere and Cate Blanchett).
It’s all too easy to dismiss I’m Not There as a fan movie, judging by the title—taken from an obscure bootleg—and the oblique, often farcical representation of the storied events of Dylan’s life. While a joy for Dylanologists everywhere, the film is far more significant for how it pushes the form of conventional Hollywood biopics.
Haynes refuses to indulge in the cookie-cutter rock star story arcs of success, infidelity, drugs and tragedy. These elements are present, of course, but I’m Not There prefers to tell an original story of a perceptive person, gloried for his words and subsequently claimed by the public and the press as their own.
It’s only fitting that Haynes uses so many faces and performances in his search for the real Bob Dylan, since Dylan purposefully obscured his own identity with wit and tall tales. Haynes also engages in his own myth-making, exploiting the apocryphal events surrounding Dylan and his life.
The film forgoes conventional narration for deft cuts, jumping between the stories of the seven different characters. Although diffuse, it’s a daring approach that juxtaposes and connects the various overlapping aspects of Dylan’s life.
Haynes is nothing if not ambitious, but he has considerably matured as a filmmaker since Velvet Goldmine, a film that tried to encompass the entirety of glam rock and its stars. His earlier film was overwhelmed with the immense subject matter stuffed into only a few characters and one plotline.
Each segment pertaining to various parts of Dylan’s life is distinguished by a distinct visual style and an actor portraying one of the seven Dylans. The actors are rarely self-conscious portraying the legend, and it’s extremely interesting to watch the varied approaches of each actor for their respective characters. Cate Blanchett’s turn is especially notable, but all of the actors seem inspired as they craft their characters.
The film includes landmark events—such as Dylan’s first electric performance at the Newport Folk Festival—as nothing more than, well, landmarks to guide the audience through the convoluted plotlines. Devotees of the bard will note with delight how the director appropriates Dylan’s own words, using quotes from the infamous press conferences where Dylan gave appropriately ridiculous responses to the infantile questions of reporters.
In its ambitious exploration of the 1960s and 1970s, viewed through the lens of Dylan’s life and stardom, I’m Not There has the potential to lose not only the audience but also the actors’ stunning performances. It’s amazing that Haynes can contain all of this in his film, deftly examining the cult of celebrity surrounding one of the most enigmatic and potent artists of modern times.