I'm Not There

Movies Reviews Bob Dylan
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I'm Not There

Release Date: Nov. 21
Director: Todd Haynes
Writer: Haynes, Oren Moverman
Cinematographer: Ed Lachman
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Richard Gere, Heath Ledger
Studio/Run Time: The Weinstein Company, 135 mins.

"I wanna be Bob Dylan," Adam Duritz once sang in an old Counting Crows song, expressing a romantic yearning to be, well, who exactly?

Subversive writer-director Todd Haynes illustrates what most of us already knew in his nervy Dylan opus I'm Not There: the protean songwriter whose name is synonymous with "mythic icon" is a wellspring of personas. Here, he requires six actors to play him. Gimmicky as that sounds, the conceit gives this phantasmagorical hijacking of the rock bio-pic an edge of wacky genius.

Although perhaps overly schematic, these manifestations of Robert Zimmerman allow Haynes to revisit (satirically, metaphorically and speculatively) various stages of Dylan's life. There's earnest, boxcar-riding folk-singer Bob (depicted as a young black boy who calls himself Woody); conscience-of-his-generation Bob (Christian Bale, who suddenly renounces celebrity and goes to work for the Lord); movie-star Bob (Heath Ledger, impersonating Dylan in a movie-within-the-movie); Rimbaud Wanna-Be Bob (Ben Wishaw); the self-possessed Electric Bob of 1965 and '66 (Cate Blanchett); and Bucolic, Drop-Out Bob (portrayed as Billy the Kid by a grizzled Richard Gere).

Shuffling six separate narrative lines like a deck of cards, the film can feel drastically uneven. An extended send-up of the Greenwich Village coffeehouse scene that launched Dylan's career in the early 1960s telegraphs its gags, which were just as funny in Bob Roberts and A Mighty Wind. Yet, it's fascinating to see how Haynes remixes Dylan lore as a playful way of extracting fresh and unexpected meaning out of what, for many fans, is a sacred text. Blanchett's fine-boned and, yes, freewheeling vision of Dylan as a conceited pill-head, besotted with Edie Sedgwick, may be the performance of the year. She weightlessly propels the core of the film, which veers out of scenes inspired by the 1967 documentary Don't Look Back into a giddy ether of its own.

The movie is probably best in those moments of reckless abandon, in which Dylan is liberated from his own history, opening the way for us to slip into the psyche that produced all those songs. (I'm Not There would make a great double-bill with Being John Malkovich). Amid all the kaleidoscopic shape-shfting, the music - performed on and off-camera by Steven Malkmus and the Jicks and Calexico, amongst many others - almost seems like a bonus.