Todd Haynes's insightful Bob Dylan biopic, I'm Not There, is an epic mixture of symbolic words and unorthodox structure that keeps audiences craving for the next line.
Just as Dylan's lyrics leave a listener destined to replay and relisten in attempt to unwind the allusions and feelings that lie beyond the literal language of his songs, I'm Not There is a glimpse into the life of this artist, agitator, poet, performer, activist, nonactivist, fugitive, joker and impersonator. This film depicts the life of Dylan through six seemingly contradictory characters, embracing the multifaceted montage of unconventionally influential personas.
Haynes personifies Dylan's words, "All I can do is be me, whoever that is," with a renowned cast of six Dylans: Marcus Carl Franklin, Cate Blanchett, Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Ben Whishaw and Richard Gere. Each character has his own story, and the movie skips structurally between all six tales, leaving viewers joyously struggling to decipher underlying messages and connections between stories.
I'm Not There begins with 11-year-old impersonator Woody (Franklin), inspired by Dylan's icon, Woody Guthrie, portraying Dylan's early struggles to enter New York's folk/grassroots circle. Franklin releases a "My Back Pages" persona as he portrays a young black boy concerned with political issues of the past instead of the civil rights issues in the mid-1960s present.
Blanchett delivers an exceptionally believable performance, physically resembling and impersonating Dylan himself. Dylan is depicted as The Agitator - at the height of his controversial Newport festival electric debut, his ramblings with poet Allen Ginsberg, his notorious Time Magazine interview, and his seemingly intentional motorcycle crash of 1966, on which Dylan provides rationale in a 1984 interview: "I woke up and caught my senses, I realized that I was just workin' for all these leeches. And I really didn't want to do that."
Dylan's ill-fated relationship with folk-singer/songwriter Joan Baez is depicted through John (Bale), the anti-activist-turned-pastor. Sporadic interjections of poetic narration from Arthur (Whishaw) are delivered from a jail-like setting. Arthur is truly enjoyable to listen to, as he holds a type of omniscient yet plotless presence over the other characters. Ledger portrays Robbie, a self-centered "serial philanderer." Robbie's destiny for divorce mirrors the struggles of the era - the Vietnam War and Richard Nixon's reputation - along with Dylan's 1977 divorce from Sara Lowndes.
An idealized lifestyle of fugitive-vagabond Billy (Gere) romanticizes Dylan's alternate existence - Robert Allen Zimmerman - if fame and fortune had not interrupted. Billy lives a quiet but influential life in the town of Riddle, where he is known only by aliases, much like notorious outlaw Billy the Kid.
Uniting this idiosyncratic collection of personas is perhaps the underlying metaphorical message of the film; the title I'm Not There, taken from a song off of Dylan's 1967 "Basement Tape" recordings. Haynes said it best: "[I'm Not There] has this mystery that precedes it… it has this arresting quality because it's a kind of work being formed as you're hearing it. There's words and there's structure and these things [Dylan] hasn't yet decided. Because it escapes literal language, it's almost more powerful and stronger." That's Dylan.