The Faces, They Are a-Changin'

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 21, 2007

To die-hard fans of Bob Dylan, it made all the sense in the world that director Todd Haynes decided to make a biopic using six actors to play the singer-songwriter. How better to capture a man who has spent a career compulsively inventing new personas?

The resulting film, "I'm Not There," is a fascinating exercise that, if the viewer is willing to surrender to Haynes's sometimes hermetic meditations on Dylan's life, heartily rewards the investment. Often using real-life vignettes and Dylan's own quotations as his jumping-off point, Haynes has created an antidote to the "Behind the Music" chronology and one-dimensional caricatures that too often define musical biopics, delivering an absorbing, occasionally mind-bending disquisition on how Dylan has brilliantly eluded his audience's projections.

Haynes lets Dylan's life play out on the many stages of the musician's own ambitious making, starting out with perhaps his very first act of self-mythologizing. "I'm Not There" opens with an episode featuring a persona called Woody Guthrie -- here played by an 11-year-old African American actor, Marcus Carl Franklin, in a characterization reminiscent of the old Steve Martin joke, "I was born a poor black child." As a representation of Dylan's first attempt to shed his middle-class Hibbing, Minn., roots and calculatingly appropriate other, more "authentic," musical styles and identities, Franklin's Guthrie is a beguiling waif who plies his fellow tramps and thieves with elaborate tall tales. His guitar case, like the real Guthrie's, is emblazoned with the graffito, "This Machine Kills Fascists." For much of "I'm Not There," Dylan in all his guises wrestles with whether that can ever be true.

The scenes featuring Franklin are among the best in "I'm Not There," from a transfixing performance with Richie Havens on"Tombstone Blues" to one of the film's most amusing tableaux, in which the disingenuous troubadour has become an exotic pet for the white, middle-class do-gooders who take him in. The liberal elite, like the ACLU audience Dylan drunkenly excoriated in real life and in the movie, is just one group whose pigeonholes Dylan would spend a career alternately exploiting and escaping.

Another group is his own family, here embodied by Charlotte Gainsbourg, who delivers a quietly breathtaking performance as Claire, an amalgam of Dylan's most famous romantic partners, Suze Rotolo and wife Sara Lownds. Gainsbourg takes a stock role and gives it remarkable depth of feeling; in early sequences, she's styled to resemble her mother, Jane Birkin, in an eerie echo of Birkin's own legendary relationship with another national songwriter icon, Serge Gainsbourg.

And so it goes, the endless roundelay of references and begats that may prove irritatingly self-indulgent to some viewers, but will provide endless amusement to both Dylanologists and garden-variety rock snobs. (Heath Ledger plays Claire's husband, a philandering celebrity named Robbie; Ben Whishaw plays "Arthur Rimbaud" as Dylan's visionary poet side; and Christian Bale plays Jack Rollins, in a nod to one of Dylan's biggest influences, Ramblin' Jack Elliott.)

Granted, "I'm Not There" contains some clunkers. Mock-doc sequences, some featuring Julianne Moore as a Joan Baez-like folk matron, bear an uncomfortable resemblance to Christopher Guest's brilliant "A Mighty Wind," and Dylan's affair with Edie Sedgwick (here played by Michelle Williams) is given disproportionate weight. But for the most part, "I'm Not There" lives up to Haynes's opening epigraph announcing a film that is "inspired by the music and many lives of Bob Dylan" as it hits the milestones most familiar high and low points of Dylan's life, from his overnight success in Greenwich Village to his 1966 motorcycle accident and, later, his conversion to Christianity (represented by Bale in a bolo tie and a Jewfro ).

In terms of the film's pre-release publicity, the most famous of those many lives is depicted by Cate Blanchett, who plays Dylan when he went electric in 1965 and whose uncanny performance goes beyond the mere impersonation she delivered as Katharine Hepburn in "The Aviator." What starts out to be something of a stunt instead turns into a surprisingly authentic expression, not just of Dylan's androgynous appeal but his hostility to his fans (the Newport Folk Festival scene alone is worth the price of admission).

Haynes clearly owes a debt to the documentary "Don't Look Back" for these scenes, some of which look lifted directly from D.A. Pennebaker's definitive film. But "I'm Not There" is just as much an homage to Haynes's other cinematic influences, from the French New Wave and his beloved Douglas Sirk to Richard Lester and Sam Peckinpah, whose "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid" is given its nod in a storyline starring Richard Gere. Although Blanchett's role is showier than Gere's aging Kid, these sequences are by far the film's most haunting and visually dazzling. While the singer Jim James performs an ethereal cover of "Goin' to Acapulco," the wizened Gere dreamily travels through a pastoral landscape reminiscent of Robert Altman's Wild West and the sideshows and dime museums of Barnum-era popular culture, as a wildly imaginative production number of Gothic Americana plays out in the background.

What it all means, aside from evoking Dylan's own retreat into riddles as he mines American folklore and nostalgia, is never made clear. But that seems precisely the point in a film about an artist who so assiduously avoids fixed meanings. This is, after all, a man who has performed his own sky burial in the form of an endless tour, the happiest of all endings for someone who craves acceptance but prefers not to be pinned down. This film, a swirling, kaleidoscopic testament to elusiveness, ends on a literally perfect note, which is to say it's both literal and perfect: There's vintage footage of Dylan himself, not singing, not delivering any epochal pronouncements or gnomic epigrams, just playing a freewheeling harmonica solo. Thus does "I'm Not There" engage in the ultimate subversion, with its enigmatic subject where he's always been: right here.

I'm Not There (135 minutes, at E Street, Bethesda Row and Shirlington) is rated R for profanity, some sexuality and nudity.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company