How hard can it be to make a Bob Dylan biopic? Todd Haynes doesn’t try with I’M NOT THERE (2007): it’s fiction, with six separately-named characters representing “the various moods of Bob Dylan,” set in a world coloured by the same sort of subtle fantasy as Terry Gilliam’s BIG FISH (2003); but more absurd, in fitting with the stream-of-consciousness poems that are Dylan’s lyrics. It’s an inspired tribute to the man, but the blend of real details spoken of in song and memoir, with fiction, makes me uncomfortable. Is it not disrespectful to the man to show his accomplishments as celebrity and artist, as fiction? Does it not devalue the greatest claim a man can make -- that he was real?
Besides this one glaring philosophical misstep on the part of Todd Haynes, I have to say again that I’M NOT THERE shows real inspiration on all parts, and may be the best piece of fanfic I’ve ever seen. With a project like this, that eschews convention in favour of artistic expression, the cast is put in what I would assume is the best position an actor can be in: to be able to draw on an individual aspect of a man as dynamic, original and captivating as Bob Dylan, free to interpret and dramatize to the extent of film’s ability to represent “cool.” Ben Whishaw, who plays “Arthur,” Dylan at 20, the nerdy folkster with grand ambitions of revolution, and Cate Blanchett playing “Jude,” Dylan at 24, sick of his niche in pop culture and carving his way out with an electric guitar, run with their roles (albeit in typical directions), ensuring that Dylan is remembered as the ultra-cool protopunk he was. Christian Bale plays a more dynamic role, of “Jack,” Dylan during his press-fighting years and subsequent religious conversion. Despite being typecast as an asshole, Bale is an accomplished actor and pulls off the emotion of his conversion well. Richard Gere communicates nothing as “Billy,” Dylan the old man, living in a cabin in the woods, while Marcus Carl Franklin does a good job playing Dylan the child, or “Woody Guthrie,” a train-hopping rambler who delivers meaningful speeches to dumbstruck hobos. Heath Ledger as “Robbie,” along with Gere’s “Billy,” is another nonsensical, useless character: his entire function appears to be to show Dylan as a romantic, through his relationship with “Claire” (Charlotte Gainsbourg, always rivetingly odd-looking). Predictably, their time on-screen is backed by songs like “I Want You” and “Visions of Johanna.”
Despite vision that sees well certain aspects of making a “tribute” film such as I’M NOT THERE is, while faltering in other spots; and despite a cast that is patchy and sometimes uninspired, I am bound to see this film as a mostly good thing that succeeds as a competent send-up to a man who proves that truth is greater than fiction, and that not even a gang of actors can accurately portray his multifaceted self.