It's easy to say that there's never been a film like Todd Haynes' I'm Not There, but that's not really true. Movies this challenging, strange and beautiful have been made plenty of times, but rarely do they find a way into the theaters, at least since the 1970s.
It's also easy to say that I'm Not There is inspired by the life and music of Bob Dylan, as the film's opening states. But that's also not really true. I'm Not There is a complete departure from the musical biopics we've seen in recent years. Fans of Ray or Walk the Line will find absolutely nothing like those films in I'm Not There, which stars six different actors--including a young African-American boy and Australian actress Cate Blanchett--as the singer-songwriter. To make matters even stranger, each actor represents less a specific period in Dylan's life than a suggested slice, a surreal interpretation of an interpretation of Bob Dylan. It is primarily and intentionally non-linear. Bob Dylan's name is never mentioned. And somehow, it works. Mostly. But even when it doesn't, it's always, shall we say, Dylanesque.
Blanchett has received the most attention for playing Jude, her version of Dylan, during his pill-popping, going-electric period. Her sequence is in black-and-white and might be the most defining version of Dylan, who understands his own importance but has reached a point where he cannot understand how or why his opinion should matter to anyone. Christian Bale is John, a folk-singer who puts his fame aside to become an evangelical preacher (his version of 'Pressing On,' both in the film and on the soundtrack, is phenomenal). Further down Haynes' rabbit hole, Heath Ledger plays an actor who once played the lead role in a biopic of Christian Bale's take on Dylan. He is the egocentric version of Dylan, the one who gives into the fortune and attention at the cost of his marriage to Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). These two Dylans parallel each other; they are different sides of the same man.
Marcus Carl Franklin is the Woody Guthrie version, a young black boy riding the rails, representing the point in Dylan's life when he went back to the American classics. Ben Whishaw is Arthur, a young poet facing interrogation at the hands of--who? Society? The Man? The public? We never know. Perhaps the piece that fits least is Richard Gere's aging Billy the Kid Bob Dylan, taking on Pat Garrett one last time in a surreal town that is gorgeous with unfathomable symbolism. It makes the film a little too long, but to cut the entire sequence would be to cut Jim James of the band My Morning Jacket's stunning performance of 'Goin' to Acapulco' and some truly inspired imagery.
To top it off, each sequence is shot in an entirely different style, and there are echoes of Fellini and Godard, depending on which character is being featured. It's all very ambitious, perhaps even audacious. This is as artsy as art-house films go, and it isn't even necessarily a movie for the Dylan faithful. Those unfamiliar with the man's work will likely have a hard time connecting, but Dylan diehards will, too, because, again, the picture isn't really about him. It's about the idea of Dylan, an artist who's shed his skin repeatedly and whose impact on both music and culture during the last four decades cannot be overstated.
So, yeah, it's a very long, strange trip. But is it any good?
Me, I loved it. It's beautiful to watch and a challenge to follow, but Haynes somehow captures that unspoken emotional quality we experience when we first connect with an artist like Bob Dylan. But I couldn't argue with someone who thinks it's just disjointed cinematic masturbation. They're right, too. It is infuriating and maddening, without a true thread, a movie that will mean less to students of Dylan than it will to students of film. And it's odd--like it or not, Dylan's music has always been fairly accessible. I'm Not There (the title taken from an obscure Dylan tune only available on bootlegs), on the other hand, is not.