The elusiveness and contradictory nature of the life and career of Bob Dylan is one which defies any standard rock biopic treatment, so who better than the unconventional filmmaker Todd Haynes to set about trying to weave some kind of coherent film? The result is a Fellinian free-form collage with no real narrative thrust, but which somehow seems to capture the essence of this most over-analysed but little understood musician.
The ‘Dylan’ psyche is actually split into several different parts, none of whom are actually called Bob Dylan. In purely biographical order, though the film actually freely cuts between the stories, there is the 11-year old Woody Guthrie obsessed Dylan played by Marcus Carl Franklin, the young adult ‘Arthur Rimbaud’ played by Ben Whishaw, the folk-era Dylan and later born-again pastor portrayed by Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett as the ‘Judas’-era electric Dylan, Heath Ledger as the ‘Blood on the Tracks’/’Desire’ period divorced Dylan, and finally Richard Gere as an ageing Dylan somehow transported back to the Wild West as Billy the Kid. It makes sense to have different faces for the different guises: and, lest we forget, ‘Bob Dylan’ itself was a mask hiding the real Robert Zimmerman.
It is clear from all of those basic descriptions that a clear idea of Dylan’s biography is necessary before stepping into the cinema. This is not a biopic which allows the viewer to sit back and be passive observers into another life, as with the likes of the recent Walk the Line or Ray – films which require no real prior knowledge of the artist in question, as important biographical events will all be clearly portrayed. I’m Not There requires the constant attention of a somewhat knowledgeable viewer, otherwise it could easily appear too confusing and unfocused. Perhaps the perfect aperitif to this is Martin Scorsese’s superior Dylan documentary No Direction Home (2005).
The strange structure and at times bizarre symbolism in fact render this closer to the likes of 8½ (1963), the Fellini ‘film about the making of a film’. There are clear homages, specifically to two of the film’s most famous early scenes: Mastroianni trapped in his car in a traffic jam, and then imagining himself floating midair like a balloon tethered by a piece of string. The Fellini connection is hammered home by the use in one scene of Nino Rota’s theme from Casanova. There are thematic similarities between the two films: in particular, the Cate Blanchett sequences explore the pressure Dylan feels from his expectant fans and the ever-circling critical vultures, in much the same way that Mastroianni is hemmed in by similar forces throughout 8½.
The segment that feels closest to straight-on biopic material is perhaps the Heath Ledger scenes; his Dylan is going through the messy divorce proceedings with his wife, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, and there are flashbacks to happier times during their courtship. Elsewhere, there are other clear biographical points: the Julianne Moore character is a clear representation of Joan Baez, and the documentary aesthetic complete with the use of appropriate film stock and shooting style almost make these sections feel authentic. Except we all know the Julianne Moore was not a folk singer in the 1960s. Was she?
The film is exhilarating at times, though at other times it drags a little – the Richard Gere segments seem slow and meaningless, and at 135 minutes long with no real plot to follow it can get a little bewildering. But its great moments make the rather less so ones worthwhile; a fantastic symbolism-loaded sequence accompanied by Ballad of a Thin Man, where a critic of Blanchett’s character has a series of Fellini-esque visions resulting from his realization that ‘something is happening that he doesn’t know what it is’ with Dylan’s new musical direction is utterly mesmeric, as are so many other snippets here and there. In many ways it is reminiscent of watching some of the great Italian director’s post-La Dolce Vita work, such as Roma or Amarcord: even if meaning is not immediately obvious, one has to admire the sheer craft behind it all.
Haynes is a fascinating director, and enjoys playing with audience preconceptions. His last film, the wonderful Far From Heaven (2002) used the template of Douglas Sirk melodrama to highlight the acceptability of racism and homophobia of 1950s America. His controversial early biopic Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987) was a serious-minded exploration of the problem of anorexia and the effect of fame on one vulnerable individual, serious despite it being portrayed entirely using Barbie dolls. That he would attempt such a daring project as this, then, is no real surprise, but it does appear to seal his reputation as one of the most extraordinary filmmakers working in Hollywood today, a reputation which had taken a dent after the critical and commercial failure of the misunderstood classic Velvet Goldmine (1998).
“Art is the lie through which we see the truth”, said Pablo Picasso, and this film seems to encapsulate that idea: that it is only through these six unreal Dylans that it is possible to get any handle on the mess of contradictions which makes up this artist, and indeed any artist, any human being. In trying to create something, we take our mish-mash of life experiences, our triumphs and failures, our childhood reminiscences and our desires for the future, and try to form something coherent out of them, to which people can relate to. But ultimately what is communicated is personal to the viewer, and open to misinterpretation. Dylan, like Guido in 8½, becomes acutely aware of this, but chooses to embrace it rather than to hide away from it; to accept his contradictory position with all of the trappings which come along with it. This hugely ambitious film tries in some way to reconcile the man and the myths.