"It's partly like a dream, partly like a drug and partly like a Dylan song."
That's how Todd Haynes described his audacious and amusing vision of the "many lives of Bob Dylan" at the screening I was at last night. It's a pretty accurate summation.
The first Dylan track in I'm Not There is Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again, a song that conjures up images as odd as Shakespeare "speaking to some French girl" and a preacher with "twenty pounds of headlines stapled to his chest". Starting with a song that makes little literal sense sets just the right tone for what follows.
I'm Not There is unlike any music biopic you've ever seen. Instead of recreating a linear narrative à la Walk The Line or Ray, Haynes essentially riffs on various aspects of Dylan's biography and art, so instead of one actor playing 'Bob Dylan' we have six embodying seven distinct persona, none of which are called Bob Dylan.
I'm Not There - Trailer
Cate Blanchett is probably the most unusual bit of casting. She plays Jude, the drug addled rocker who alienates his folk fans by 'going electric'. It was fun to see Haynes' depiction of the Dylan's notorious 1965 Newport performance (complete with axe-wielding Pete Seeger) just a few weeks after seeing The Other Side Of The Mirror. However I found the less obviously fact-based segments more entertaining.
Marcus Carl Franklin, a young black actor, plays 'Woody Guthrie' an 11-year-old hobo with a penchant for metaphysical songwriting. More bizarre is Richard Gere's 'Billy'. This imagines the reclusive Dylan recast as Billy The Kid, who having survived Pat Garret's bullets hides out in the town of Riddle, a Wild West backwater that brings to life some of the weird Americana that Dylan channeled on The Basement Tapes.
Other aspects of Dylan's life weaved into the film are his marriage breakdown (Heath Ledger and Charlotte Gainsbourg) and his reluctance to become the Voice of a Generation protest singer (Christian Bale). Bale also reappears as a 1980s born-again Christian. The Dylan who ate half a library, as memorably recalled in Chronicles, becomes 'Arthur Rimbaud' - Ben Whishaw essentially getting all metaphorical in straight-to-camera monologues.
This unusual approach to biography works brilliantly. In the post-screening Q&A Todd Haynes remarked that Dylan's life has always been markedly delineated - once the protest singer phase ended that was it, he moved straight into psychedelic rocker. Don't look back indeed. I've read and watched a more than healthy amount about Bob Dylan over the years and still find him elusive. That's part of his appeal. Every new thing you learn about him seems to add a further layer of mystery and intrigue. And I'm Not There is nothing if not intriguing. While the film might not elucidate on specifics about Bob Dylan's life it certainly makes you think about him a lot more.
The soundtrack, of course, is terrific - a mix of Dylan originals and covers by the likes of Calexico and Mason Jennings. The film's a visual treat too, taking blatant cues from sources as varied as the French New Wave for the Ledger/Gainsbourg segments and McCabe & Mrs Miller in the Richard Gere western scenes.
Hardcore Dylan fans will obviously have a field day spotting every reference in the film but I'll be more interested by what friends who aren't as familiar with Dylan's biography and songs make of it. I hope it might convert them. I suspect they'll leave the cinema entertained but baffled.