In this highly anticipated biopic, Todd Haynes (“Far From Heaven,” “Velvet Goldmine”) directs six actors who portray different, exaggerated embodiments of Bob Dylan-esque characters at various points in his life. The young Marcus Carl Franklin plays a prodigious blues-folk guitar player on the lam; Christian Bale plays Jack Rollins, a folksinger dealing with the pressures of being called “the spokesperson of a generation”; Ben Whishaw as Arthur Rimbaud provides insightful and sometimes snide commentary throughout the film; Heath Ledger as Robbie Clark has to cope with pressures of stardom and family life; and Richard Gere plays Billy the Kid, a reclusive former rebel in a town turned upside-down.
However, the standout portrait of Dylan is depicted through the character Jude Quinn, infallibly executed by Cate Blanchett. She plays Dylan in his late-1960s persona, an established artist struggling with his celebrity and identity after outraging folk music purists at the 1965 Newport Folk Music Festival by playing an electric set. Blanchett’s role may have been either the easiest or hardest of the six personas to render — of all the subplots, it most stringently follows Dylan’s actual life in this time period. Even some of the dialogue is directly lifted from D.A. Pennebaker’s 1967 film, “Don’t Look Back,” following real-life Dylan’s 1965 tour of England. Unlike the other plotlines, it is shot in black and white, further mimicking the acclaimed documentary. In any case, Blanchett looks and acts the role with impeccable believability — the disheveled curls, the critically snarled lip and cynical snicker, the unrelenting “Fuck You” attitude, even the polka-dot shirts and concealing sunglasses — this Australian actress really nails the fibers of the male American singer/songwriter in the ‘60s.
Haynes, as a co-writer, also cleverly incorporates many Dylan references and parallels without being entirely explicit. One gem includes a moment where Billy (Gere) walks by a young girl beside a dead pony, a presumable reference to a lyric in Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” While many of these allusions will certainly fly over the heads of moderate and non-Dylan fans, they can also be distracting to his more dedicated followers.
The main characters of “I’m Not There” maintain their own stories and have their own separate plots; only a few of them marginally cross paths. The film jumps from subplot to subplot, sometimes at very frequent and sudden intervals, which can be confusing and a little overwhelming for the viewer. However, Haynes’ choice of using six different actors raises an interesting question of how one man could encompass such diverse and far-reaching caricatures. This is supposed to be a film about Bob Dylan, but, as Haynes recognizes, the difficulty in telling such a story lies in the fundamental question, “Who is Bob Dylan?” As an artist known for constantly and completely reinventing himself, it is a legitimate observation. Is he a protest singer and civil rights activist, or a countryside recluse with a penchant for motorcycles? A drug addict or a born-again Jew? A folk singer, a rock’n’roller, or a cowboy-hat-toting country boy? The answer to each is simply “Yes.” Haynes condenses over six decades of Dylan and hundreds upon hundreds of songs into a 135-minute film, dynamic and captivating, but detached and ambiguous — just like the legend himself.