I'm Not There
The new Todd Haynes film I'm Not There is a biopic in the loosest sense of the word; indeed, with six actors portraying various aspects of Bob Dylan's persona at various stages of life, little conventional narrative exists. This might not be the best movie for someone with no knowledge of events in Dylan's career, but for the curious fan there is a wealth of material.
For all of Bob's reluctance to talk about himself there are innumerable stories about the man. Many of these are portrayed here, some of the these are lies told by others, some are lies told by Bob himself, lies which have now generated their own mythology, others are true, sort of. Early Bob is portrayed by an eleven year old black boy (Marcus Carl Franklin) who calls himself "Woody Guthrie", Christian Bale is the folkie-activist and, later on, evangelical minister Bob. Heath Ledger is the "show-biz" Bob, complete with Malibu house and failed marriage. Richard Gere portrays Bob as a frontier rancher with overtones of Billy the Kid and John Wesley Harding. Ben Whishaw is a recurring figure of a young Bob on trial for abandoning protest music, giving enigmatic answers to unanswerable questions.
And then there is Cate Blanchett, unbelievably good as the mid-sixties Bob on an amphetamine-fueled tour, shot in Fellini-esque black and white, delivering the real heart of movie in a series of confrontations with nervy reporters and hostile fans.
The problem with any movie about Dylan the man is that the more telling story of his life is told through his songs; ultimately it will be these songs, which already have lives of their own, which will define the man. I have some friends in a band who like to cover Bob's stuff. They were performing recently for a decidedly "modern country" audience in a small town west of the Twin Cities. They started to play what to them was just another song on one of Bob's recent albums (Make You Feel My Love) when the entire crowd started singing along- it had been covered by Garth Brooks and everybody there knew all the lyrics- although few knew that Bob had written it. Like it or not, Bob will be with us for a very long time: on the radio, in the background of movies, in cover tunes, even in our rituals. This movie, while adding to the mythology of Bob, clarifies nothing because, as its title suggests, he's not there.