Literally speaking, Bob Dylan isn't "there" in Todd Haynes' staggering mixtape biopic I'm Not There. His words are there, in nearly three dozen Dylan songs. And his voice, belting out "Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again" over the opening credits. And his looks, from the blue jeans and work shirts of the Freewheelin' days to the outré Jew-fro circa Blonde on Blonde. But not once in all of I'm Not There do the words "Bob Dylan" pass anyone's lips, and the various Dylan surrogates who parade before us range from the eerily look-alike "Jude Quinn" (played with jaw-dropping mimicry by Cate Blanchett) to a pint-size preteen African American boy (Marcus Carl Franklin) who calls himself "Woody Guthrie."
The concept is as simple to describe as it is audacious to behold: a portrait of an artistic giant not as a chronological biopic, but rather as the sum of his influence and influences, and of the many identities he has donned. Just how many Bob Dylans have there been? I'm Not There sets the number at six — or seven, depending on how you interpret the double-sided Dylan avatar played by Christian Bale — and makes a compelling case for each of them.
In addition to Woody and Jude, there's "Jack Rollins" (Bale), a stand-in for the folksy, acoustic Dylan of the early '60s. The waiflike British actor Ben Whishaw appears fleetingly as "Arthur Rimbaud," an amalgam of Dylan's poetic influences seen spouting coy testimony before a vaguely Kafkaesque tribunal. For Dylan at the time of his divorce, we get Heath Ledger as "Robbie Clark," an actor who once played Jack Rollins in a Hollywood movie. Finally, there's Richard Gere as an autumnal "Billy the Kid," who's survived his final confrontation with Pat Garrett and retired to a landscape somewhere between the Old West and the lush hillsides of Woodstock, New York, where Dylan himself lay low following his near-fatal motorcycle accident in 1966.
Haynes styles each section of his movie after the movies of the corresponding time period — not just any films, but the ones Dylan (who has dabbled in filmmaking over the years, and who has written songs for and about movies) may have been inspired by or even seen something of himself in.
It sounds like a recipe for the most pretentious movie ever. But I'm Not There turns out to be a triumph of intellect and cinematic imagination, and it feels light rather than heavy; it's such a novel approach to film biography, it leaves every Ray and Walk the Line looking especially clueless. Basically, Haynes pulls off the seemingly impossible: He takes one of the most discussed, written-about, imitated, lusted-after public figures of the 20th century and shows us not something new, but something deeper. The Dylan whose "music and many lives" are the credited inspiration for Haynes' film isn't the mere mortal who was born Robert Allen Zimmerman in Duluth, Minnesota, found his way to New York at the dawn of the '60s folk boom, and made an indelible mark on the soundtrack of American counterculture. He's another kind of being — a pop-culture star-child hurtling through the cosmos under our immortalizing gaze.
If Blanchett's Jude is the most recognizable Dylan — and the performance that even those who hate the film won't be able to stop talking about — Gere's Billy the Kid is the most enigmatic, the one who seems at once the ghost of the musician's roots-music past and the spirit of his eternal present, the living phantom, embarked on his self-proclaimed "never-ending tour." "You've got yesterday, today, and tomorrow all in the same room. There's no telling what can happen," he muses late in the film, paraphrasing a 1978 Dylan interview. And so the most lasting image of I'm Not There may well be its last, in which the Kid picks up Woody Guthrie's guitar and hops yet another boxcar, as a train pulls down the line and a soulful harmonica blows its ageless tune.