Without ambition there is no need for cinema viewers to think, let alone care. Change is necessary for challenges, the old way of doing things must be tossed aside in favour of the brave, inventive few who simply can’t stand the status quo… In hands other than those of Todd Haynes, a Bob Dylan biopic would have been as such: Guy Pearce as singer-songwriter, a rise’n’fall account of amphetamine abuse and shagging, broken up by ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ and ‘Mr Tambourine Man’, ending with a redemptive hurrah. Sure, Ray was good and Walk The Line better, but the straight-up biopic has been done. Time for a rejig. Time for six people playing Dylan… Call it barmy, but you certainly can’t call it stale.
An elusive anti-hero, folk revolutionary and excessive rambler, Dylan’s life is rich for retelling. It took Martin Scorsese 208 minutes to get anywhere near the bare essence in 2005’s exceptional doc No Direction Home and with the story already so masterfully told, Haynes blows facts to the wind, even giving his sextuplet of ‘Dylans’ alternative names. There are historical set-pieces – most thrillingly Cate Blanchett’s arrival as ‘Jude’ at the Newport Folk Festival ’65, plugging in and electrifying folk music – but by and large I’m Not There is riffed not from the eponymous song but Dylan’s lyric “People see me all the time and they just can’t remember how to act/Their minds are filled with big ideas, images and distorted facts.” That’s taken from ‘Idiot Wind’, though… a song title not exactly ideal for an already hard-to-pitch flick.
Instead, Haynes allows his headline-grab of having six play one do the talking. It is a multifaceted screenplay written as splurges of sound and vision, with some stretches blessed with full narrative, others being mere snatches of dialogue. Christian Bale’s segment even throws mockumentary into the mix. Never one to shy away from publicity (Safe’s AIDS allegory, Velvet Goldmine’s cocks, Far From Heaven’s… er, Far From Heaven), Haynes’ casting needs discernable point to stop it becoming embarrassing stunt. Remarkably, whether seen through Bale’s rising folk hero Jack, Ben Whishaw’s Arthur Rimbaud-fixated Arthur or newcomer Marcus Carl Franklin’s young, itinerant and black Woodie, there is a common voice to all Haynes’ Dylans.
So much more than just shorthand to show how a man can change on the outside, while inside staying the same, I’m Not There’s gimmick instead paves the way for a wonderfully honest, reverential biopic. Dylan is an enigma. His is not a life to be shrunk to 120 minutes of squeezed, screwed ‘fact’, rather one for elaboration and adventure. In having him played by an ensemble – oft in a hallucinogenic montage haze – Haynes barely touches upon the man himself, instead concentrating on the myth. Thus the sanctity of his subject is preserved in all its talented and bloody awkward glory, viewers free to revel in a persona they either missed or miss. It’s a mood piece, a biopic of feeling for a man unknown. For fact, call Marty.
However… for a film dependent on half a dozen individual performances, as soon as a ‘Dylan’ enters the fray who isn’t up to the poise of previous interpretations, lag is inevitable. So while Carl Franklin is a sensation, Heath Ledger outstanding as megastar Robbie struggling in a boho marriage with Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and Blanchett thrilling as the Dylan everyone knows best (the black-clad rebel of London “Judas!” tours), the film ends with its least convincing (read: recognisable) incarnation – Richard Gere as recluse Billy. Shorn of guitar and living in a peculiar backwards town completely out of step with what has gone before, Gere is dealt the film’s bum note, drawing the viewer out of the dream and risking bringing irrelevance to the puzzle.
That aside, the greatest joy of I’m Not There is how accessible it is. Like a folk song, it’s written for the people and rare moments of obfuscation (Bruce Greenwood’s voice-of-authority BBC man having a Being John Malkovich moment in the urinals, giant tarantula crawling on screen, a giraffe) are overawed by the inspiration surrounding them. Haynes’ most ambitious film yet is also his most successful, as thankfully out of step with cinema today as Dylan has always been with his peers. The music’s not bad either...