Besides his place as one of the finest songwriters of all-time, Bob Dylan’s always also been an enigma. Dozens of books and documentaries have tried over the years to pin him down, to make sense of all the hidden meanings in his lyrics as well as the constant shifts and re-inventions in his career. What is “Chimes of Freedom” really about? Was the gospel period really something he meant and believed in? But much more importantly, is there a single, absolute answer to any of these questions? I don’t believe there is. My opinion is that “mystery” is as much a part of Dylan’s legacy as anything else and trying to eliminate it only leads to more confusion and headaches. Which brings us to I’m Not There.
From the very first scene of I’m Not There, it becomes pretty clear that director and writer Todd Haynes did not set out to give any answers. A shot with Dylan’s body lying on an operation table and doctors preparing to examine him comments on our collective obsession with dissecting every aspect of his personal life. Next, we get a quick run through every single actor that will, for the next two hours and fifteen minutes, portray different aspects of Dylan’s personality. Marcus Carl Franklin is the kid trying to emulate his blues idols while in search of his own artistic vision. Christian Bale is the protest folk singer of the early ‘60s (and later on, the reborn gospel preacher). Cate Blanchett is the pill-poppin’, loud-mouthed superstar of the electric period. Ben Whishaw plays Dylan just answering interview questions in his own enigmatic way. Through the late Heath Ledger we get a glimpse of the songwriter’s private life. And finally, Richard Gere is the once famous, now aged, bearded recluse.
Anyone without a solid knowledge of Dylan’s history will be totally lost by the movie’s plot. Hell, even the superfans will still have to make their own interpretations of these non-linear scenes, constantly switching between actors, time periods, and environments. But what is really important is that most scenes in I’m Not There are written, directed and acted well enough to invite interpretations. Oscar-nominated Cate Blanchett steals the show every time she’s on screen – she’s vitriolic and sarcastic when fighting the critics (culminating in a dazzling sequence set to “The Ballad of a Thin Man”), tired and weary when not on stage, and even displays a rare child-like enthusiasm when meeting idol Allen Ginsberg (“That’s Allen Ginsberg, man!”). Hers is one of those performances in which the actor simply becomes the character and we are completely immersed into that mid-‘60s world that gave birth to masterpieces such as Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde.
Haynes, like his actors, isn’t afraid of bold choices either. A brilliant directorial decision on his part was to portray Dylan’s legendary first electric appearance at the Newport Folk Festival as the singer and the band machine-gunning the audience, a comment on how the fans felt insulted and betrayed by their idol leaving behind the folk scene. Another was to make Christian Bale return for the gospel years, which seems to me to say that this was the first time since the protest years that Dylan believed he could make a difference with his music, even though this time around the message was completely different. And the storyline concerning Dylan’s personal life – primarily his relationship with first wife Sara – is no less interesting, with plenty of memorable moments. The scene where the two fight and then make up over an early version of “Idiot Wind” would’ve been the climax of any other romantic movie.
Just as with Dylan’s lyrics, going further and dissecting every single scene of I’m Not There would make little sense. What matters is that as a whole, the movie serves its purpose – Haynes is clearly a passionate fan who knows his Dylan history, and who understands that mystery plays such a big part in it. More questions are asked than answered and this only reaffirms just how fascinating an artist Bob Dylan really is – and I don’t mean just 1963 Bob Dylan, or 1966 Bob Dylan, but all of them, as well as the ones that have emerged since the movie’s 2007 release.
PS. How do you interpret Bob Dylan’s latest? Read more about Triplicate here and decide for yourself. Plus, revisit that pivotal moment at the Newport Folk Festival in our post When Dylan Plugged in and Changed Everything (Or Not).