Director Todd Haynes, who once used Barbie dolls to tell the sad story of Karen Carpenter, takes a similarly unusual approach in this wondrously ambitious attempt to capture the essence of ever-elusive, shape-shifting singer-songwriter Bob Dylan. Instead of a straightforward biography of the Jewish kid from the Minnesota North Country who reinvented himself time and again while revolutionizing American music, Haynes invents a series of six Dylanesque characters who together describe the outlines of the enigmatic artist. What Haynes winds up with are six biographical bootlegs of the official product and a blank center, making the clever title choice ("I'm Not There" is an oft-bootlegged track from the "Basement Tapes" sessions that never made it onto an official Dylan album) both a statement of purpose and a priori admission of defeat.
Woody (Marcus Carl Franklin) is an 11-year-old African-American self-styled hobo who's riding the rails across late-1950s America with a guitar case emblazoned with Woody Guthrie’s six-string motto — "This machine kills fascists" — and singing politically irrelevant old union songs that are at least 20 years out of date. Arthur (Ben Whishaw) is a 19-year-old Symbolist poet who’s asked to explain himself before a panel of oblivious interrogators (journalists?). In Greenwich Village of the early 1960s, Jack Rollins (Christian Bale), singer of socially conscious, "finger-pointin'" protest songs, has gone from the tiny stage at Cafe Wha? to the studios of Columbia Records, thanks in part to his association with Queen of Folk Alice Fabian (Julianne Moore). Hailed as the "troubadour of conscience," Jack's fame and influence is such that Hollywood is making a movie based on his life story -- “A Grain of Sand” -- starring exciting young rebel-without-a-cause actor Robbie Clark (Heath Ledger). Meanwhile, electrified and amphetamine-wired folksinger Jude Quinn (Cate Blanchett, in a spot-on impersonation) takes the stage at the 1965 Newport folk festival and scandalizes unsuspecting fans with his new brand of electric folk rock, then heads to Europe for an endless, surreal world tour where his new sound triggers riots. Greeted at each stop by a relentlessly idiotic press, Jude is mercilessly grilled by BBC arts editor Keenan Jones (Bruce Greenwood), who demands to know whether Jude's abandonment of acoustic protest music for trendy electric guitars means he was never sincere in the first place. And just outside the carnivalesque frontier town of Riddle, Missouri, former outlaw Billy (Richard Gere) is living a life of anonymity after faking his own demise, until he discovers that the town is about to disappear under a new six-lane highway.
Haynes cuts back and forth between the six separate stories. Woody undergoes an Old Testament ordeal — he’s swallowed by a whale — and emerges writing prophetic material that's finally relevant to his own generation. Jude's drug use increases as his scheming manager Morris Bernstein (Peter Friedman) schedules an endless series of tour dates and Jude's jester, Sonny (Joe Cobden), begins dating his former fling, troubled underground superstar Coco (Michelle Williams). After realizing folk music is no more "authentic" than pop music, Jack suddenly goes AWOL, only to reemerge a decade later as a Born Again Christian minister. Hoping to forestall Riddle's destruction, Billy confronts the highway authority's chief planner, his old, would-be assassin, Pat Garrett (Greenwood, again). And after losing his long-suffering wife, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg, in a fine, understated performance), and his children in a divorce, adulterous Robbie nearly loses his life in a motorcycle crash that will no doubt usher in yet another version of this ever-changing self.
Each of these entirely fictional storylines is constructed around representations of Dylan as he allowed himself to appear on camera (much of the dialogue is taken directly from D.A. Pennebaker's footage in DON'T LOOK BACK and EAT THE DOCUMENT) and interviews, and each contains biographical data that, together, form a reverse portrait for those hip enough to know what Haynes is doing while probably baffling everyone else. There's a lot to like: In an unexpected coup, Dylan granted Haynes the rights to his songbook so the soundtrack is a solid collection of originals and inspired covers. And Haynes has some film-geek fun aping the styles of 1960s and '70s auteurs like Fellini, Godard, Richard Lester, Sam Peckinpah, and, of course, Pennebaker. But unlike Haynes' smart, Sirkian FAR FROM HEAVEN, there's no central performance to pull this impressive display above the level of pastiche, and little emotional connection. In the end it remains an academic exercise, though a dazzlingly ambitious one that’s well worth seeing. leave a comment --Ken Fox