In an age where the musician biopic has become such formulaic Oscar-bait that it now has its own parody movie, Todd Haynes has given the genre an original, distinctive twist. Maybe we can start calling the Todd Haynes biopic a subgenre in its own right, since his Bob Dylan sextuple biography I'm Not There shares that twist with Velvet Goldmine and, to a lesser extent, Superstar: a willingness to leap outside the particulars of its subject's life, to jump into allusion and parody and outright fantasy and so arrive at some larger, less easily represented truth.
Not that you can pin down anything as specific or confining as a Todd Haynes formula. I'm Not There bears a few crucial differences from its predecessors, and one unmistakeable advantage--this time Haynes made sure got the rights to the music. Velvet Goldmine arguably thrived under its constraints since the fake Bowie numbers dovetailed so perfectly with its themes of fabricated authenticity, and those Shudder to Think songs are fantastic homages. But that's not a trick a director can pull twice, and while I'm Not There also pivots around the idea that its subject created his own identity, many times over, Haynes's polymorphous Dylan doesn't work quite the same way as his gloriously fake Bowie. He isn't creating fantasy personas like Ziggy Stardust or Aladdin Sane or The Thin White Duke; he's creating Bob Dylan, many Bob Dylans, and to tell his story nobody else's music will do. (The movie isn't exactly hurting for use of his back catalogue, either. I'm not sure you could find a more bittersweet soundtrack for the collapse of Robbie Clark's marriage than "Visions of Johanna.")
The six lead roles are split between different periods in Dylan's life, different aspects of his personality, and different idealized conceptions of himself, with a few actors getting to walk the line between fact and fantasy. Christian Bale plays the most squarely historical Dylan and the most boring one. His late-developing paunch and the small crowd at his church strike me as a devastating shot at the Christian Dylan, but it's perceptive of Haynes to have the same actor playing the young, fiery, protest-movement Dylan everybody lionizes. (The casting makes such telling insights that the script doesn't always pull its own weight.) Heath Ledger gets some of the most moving scenes as the married Dylan, while Cate Blanchett gets the most fun Dylan and the most successful stunt casting--although Marcus Carl Franklin is unbelievably good as 11-year-old "Woody Guthrie." Ben Whishaw plays what appears to be a purely ideal Dylan who never enters the biography, which is just as well since the movie is already bursting with Dylans.
We shouldn't overlook Bruce Greenwood, who contributes a great turn as all the various authority figures Dylan pushes against (one of them, naturally, named Mr. Jones). If Blanchett, Ledger, et al are one person fractured into many guises then Greenwood is the perfect antithesis, many forces compressed into one stoic face. Sadly, a quick intercut almost ruins the trick by making the dual role too obvious, but Greenwood pulls off the aging Peckinpah villain and the sanctimonious BBC gatekeeper with equal aplomb.
I was hoping the Billy the Kid sequences would culminate in a burst of redemptive violence a la Peckinpah, but I guess that wouldn't be true to Dylan or his music. Instead those scenes link up with one of the movie's most conflicted and compelling themes, an ongoing question of whether art is compatible with political engagement. For most of the movie Dylan (in all his various guises) tries to wriggle free of everybody who wants to claim him and his music for their cause, but his scorn for awards banquets and possessive folkies quickly shades into total quietism and withdrawal.
This is where we pick up Richard Gere's Billy the Kid Dylan, in hiding from the world and his own reputation. He learns soon enough that sometimes the world won't leave you alone--first through the sounds of jungle warfare echoing from the woods around his cabin and then, with a less heavy hand, when the law encroaches on the strange and mournful town of Riddle. When Billy pushes back it's not with the gunplay his name and his cinematic inspiration seem to demand, and it's not terribly effective either, but the point has been made: independence and artistic freedom are all well and good until the forces you've been ignoring set their sights on you.
Plenty of people, artists or otherwise, will tell you that art should never engage with politics (not infrequently after they encounter a work of art whose politics they don't share). It's a common enough stance but, for me, an unsatisfactory one, especially when your country is engaged in something as monumentally, unavoidably evil as an unnecessary and unjust war. I'm Not There flirts with the ascetic approach but says it can't work for long. And if the movie comes back around to something like the other Dylans' position that music doesn't need a cause or a champion, if it resists being locked into one message just as much as Dylan does one identity, it still feels stronger for having questioned and ultimately rejected Billy the Kid's confusion of freedom with escapism.
That's not the only movie in I'm Not There. At best, it's one of about five or six. This is also a movie of haunting musical numbers and smart period jokes, of Fellini and Richard Lester and D. A. Pennebaker parodies (reminding me again of Velvet Goldmine and its playful exhumation of Citizen Kane), of Julianne Moore in a Joan Baez wig and David Cross on a golf cart. A movie as witty and cryptic and passionate and melancholy and mercurial as its subject.