This is the much-discussed film in which six different people
play Bob Dylan, although none of the characters are actually named
Bob Dylan. As the title suggests, Bob Dylan is not a character in
own biography. It's easy enough to see what writer/director Todd
Haynes is driving at with that gimmick. As we look back upon the
entertainers who have populated the stage of pop culture in the
lives of the baby boomers, some people have never changed. Paul
McCartney, who has been in the spotlight about as long as Dylan,
always seems to be the same person: approachable, sentimental,
sometimes prickly but never confrontational, a man not especially
interested in discussing politics or history. That was Lennon's bag.
One person could play Paul in his biopic. But Bob Dylan? Well, he's
the mystery tramp.
- He's the Jewish Minnesotan preppie who incongruously styled
himself as Woody Guthrie, although it was the late 1950s, and
Woody's songs about the depression and riding the rails seemed
- He's the Greenwich Village folkie who partnered with Joan Baez
to create some of the greatest finger-pointing songs of that era,
and wrote the very best neo-folk music to go with the traditional
ballads which were popular with the beatnik crowd.
- He's the rock star who shocked the 1965 Newport Jazz festival
with an electric set which, according to (debunked) legend, caused
folk legend Pete Seeger to take an axe to the power supply for
Dylan's amps. That version of Dylan ended up hanging out with Edie
Sedgwick and the Warhol crowd, although Dylan always maintained an
ironic distance from those people.
- He's the country and western star who wrote simple shit-kicker
love songs and sang duets with Johnny Cash.
- He's the idealistic young husband and father who, together
with his wife Sara, was going to be an experimental filmmaker.
And so forth. He had other avatars as well, but you all probably
know as much or more about him as I do, so there's no need for me to
The film's structural mistake is not in having Dylan portrayed as
many different fictional characters with different names, but in the
fact that one of the six (the poet Rimbaud, played by Ben Whishaw)
is utterly superfluous and unnecessary to the film, and that another
(Dylan's character in Billy the Kid, as played by Richard Gere) is
so far afield from the rest of the film that all the scenes
involving that character grind the film to a halt. Gere's scenes
sort of take place in the Old West and sort of take place now, kind
of like the scenes involving the murder of the contemporary
historian in Python and the Holy Grail.
The rest of the film, however, works better than it has any right
- Dylan as a young boy is actually portrayed as an 11-year-old,
African-American, left-handed guitarist named Woody Guthrie. That
sounds odd, but those scenes capture the essence of Dylan in that
era. He was just a guy lost in time, trying to find the portal to
his own era.
- The folkie, who later comes back as a folk/gospel singer, is
played by Christian Bale, doing a pretty straightforward
impersonation of the awkward Dylan of that era.
- The cultural icon is played by Cate Blanchett, doing a pretty
straightforward impersonation of the constantly opague and
baffling Dylan of that time, centering on his contentious
relationships with the press and his former folk colleagues.
- The failed husband and filmmaker, in the most poignant portion
of the film, is played by Keith Ledger. Ledger doesn't really try
to capture any aspect of Dylan seen by the public, but rather to
create a vision of how Dylan then thought his life should have
worked out, and why it didn't really go as planned.
That's three of the best actors in the world, matched beat for
beat by the little kid trying to be Woody Guthrie, who is the real
revelation of the film. In fact, I think that every single scene
with the little kid worked, and I especially enjoyed a number he
played with the legendary Richie Havens, whose distinctive voice
echoes through the years. The scenes with Heath Ledger and Charlotte
Gainsbourg playing the Bob and Sara characters, aka Renaldo and
Clara, also got to me. Dylan is not the only guy from my generation
who managed to succeed in many ways while failing at the things that
should have been most important, and this portion of the story
speaks clearly to the failings of many baby boomers who were Dylan's
I'm Not There is certainly not a standard Hollywood biopic, and
it is not going to draw a mass audience. It can be rambling, boring,
experimental, pretentious, pseudo-arty and unfocused, and it lacks a
coherent narrative line. I normally hate a film like that, and you
would think I would hate this one even more than usual because two
of the six characters just didn't work. But I didn't hate it at all.
A lot of things work in this film. In addition to the fine
performances and sporadically interesting script, the film
illustrates the many sides of Dylan with long excerpts (not
snippets) from the many different styles of music created by each of
the various men Dylan was or was pretending to in the various stages
of his life. When I'm Not There gets in stride it can be evocative,
entertaining, and painfully close to the bone. Unlike most "arty"
films, it is also genuine art. I would have
preferred it shorter, but when the film does hit the mark, it gets
inside the subject's skin in a way no typical biopic could achieve.