He wakes up as one person and goes to bed as someone else completely; that’s what Bob Dylan said about himself in a long-ago interview.
I’m Not There, released in 2007 and available on DVD at the Whitehorse Public Library, is a fittingly non-linear journey “inspired” by some of those lives, and the music Dylan creates.
Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven), director and co-writer of I’m Not There, has a reputation as an unconventional filmmaker with a special affinity for musicians.
His first film, Superstar, was about Karen Carpenter of the Carpenters, with Barbie and Ken dolls cast as the characters. His approach to the myth of Bob Dylan is equally inventive, but more ambitious in scope.
Haynes’ and Oren Moverman’s screenplay creates six characters resembling Dylan, played by five actors, each version representing a distinct period of Dylan’s early public life, with each storyline filmed in a particular genre. The action of the film mostly takes place in the 1960s, though the music isn’t limited to that period.
Child actor Marcus Carl Franklin is a very young African-American Dylan, called Woody Guthrie, who hops freight trains to travel across the country, and actress Cate Blanchett plays Jude Quinn, who is confronted with intensifying fame as well as criticism on a grueling tour.
Jack Rollins (Christian Bale) is a young writer of anthemic songs adopted by the protest movement, who performs with Alice Fabien (Julianne Moore as a passive-aggressive folk goddess), but disappears from the scene. He emerges years later as Pastor John, a born-again evangelist.
Actor Robbie Clark (Heath Ledger) plays Jack Rollins in a film and falls in love with a French artist (Charlotte Gainsbourgh). Richard Gere is Billy the Kid, hiding out in a town that’s been bypassed by the modern world. Arthur Rimbaud (Ben Whishaw) is trapped in a room being perpetually interrogated by men in suits.
The narrative shifts back and forth between the characters and timelines, tied together by Dylan’s music, including familiar and obscure songs in cover versions and originals. The dialogue and incidents are sourced from resources on Dylan, such as interviews and biographies, and even the most fanciful scenes are based in reality.
The town of Riddle, for example, where Billy the Kid hangs out, seems surreal but represents a very weird but true part of rural America, with images borrowed from 19th century photos as well as Dylan’s childhood memories and his lyrics.
I’m Not There is an impressionistic collage of iconic images, music, and tales of Dylan’s early career, rather than a character study. For more of Bob Dylan himself, Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home is available on inter-library loan from the Teslin Public Library.
This 2005 documentary has extensive interviews with Bob Dylan and several of his contemporaries from the Greenwich Village days. Segments from Eat the Document, an unreleased documentary from 1966, are integrated with the Scorsese film, and many live performances are included as extras.
Scorsese’s film shows a Bob Dylan who is more empathetic and gentle than you might expect after seeing I’m Not There.