He helped to create (along with the press) a notion of the pop singer as a messianic harbinger of social change just before becoming the first to smash that notion and create himself anew. He connected the dots of a dissipating sense of Americana just as he amped up for rock’s electric future.
His character was always slippery, presented with an aphoristic bite and hazy self-absorbance, making a template rock and pop stars have been doomed to follow ever since. Yet after all his self-manipulations and about-faces, his impact has been all the greater, lending itself to a flick like I’m Not There, where his many facets are sliced up and tossed about among seven actors portraying interlocked pieces of the Dylan puzzle.
Director Todd Haynes takes up where he left off in the glam-era mythologizing work of Velvet Goldmine and delivers a flick dripping in oblique references to Dylan mythology. His first task was to parse out the different aspects of Dylan’s work and life he wanted portrayed.
“Of the seven kind of psyches that emerge all kind of split him up into these components that I felt needed to be distinct from each other, and yet they needed to have a kind of length to each other, where you saw that as one character explores his world and reaches certain impasses that it forces the next character to be a sort of solution to those conflicts,” Haynes explains.
In this way there is a loose, linear narrative to the film, but one that occurs not by plot but through common elements (lines, places, symbols) that repeat themselves in the context of many Dylan-derived worlds. It might seem that the film is a throw-out to the Dylanologists, but Haynes disagrees.
“I don’t know that you need to know a great deal about Bob Dylan to enjoy the film and to enter into the invitation that it gives you to take a journey into this very specific time, the 1960s and this very central artist to that time,” he says.
The film is meant to fan the flames of Dylan obsession rather than encapsulate it, hence Haynes’ hope that “It kind of reinfuses Bob Dylan with a sense of excitement and risk and irreverence that I think really does define who he is and who he was.”
The film does go a long way towards describing a sense and energy of what Dylan did in its many narrations, but even Dylan #5 Heath Ledger (late ’60s/early ’70s womanizer, rock star, divorcee, dick Dylan) admits that the film taught him nothing of the man himself.
“I read the books, I watched the documentaries and my catalogue of Dylan’s music has expanded,” Ledger says. “The beauty of Todd’s film is that I can’t tell you I know anything more about Bob Dylan than you do. Haynes intentionally tried to preserve Bob Dylan’s mystique.”
The focus of I’m Not There is not so much Dylan the man as it is to inflate or electrify versions of Dylan the figure. Even so, the movie might be seen as a tough sell given that Dylan has recently been given the extensive documentary treatment à la Martin Scorcese in No Direction Home. What I’m Not There offers beyond explaining how Dylan became a transformative cultural figure is a series of interesting and often captivating takes on the man.
Most arresting is Cate Blanchett’s shambling, stumbling, magnetic and perhaps slightly reaching depiction of Dylan just as he rejected his folk roots and went electric. To see her slumped and gaunt, big hair and tiny cigarette is one of the joys of the film.
Richard Gere’s old country man Dylan with his trusty dog, perhaps not so much. The same for Christian Bale’s idealistic, media-hassled, Christian convert Dylan. There’s a Dylan for every taste and sensibility, and maybe that’s the point, that the real Dylan exists only in the eye of the beholder.
I’m Not There releases in select theaters Nov. 21.