Will the real Bob Dylan please stand up?

Posted on January 7, 2008


By Darran Anderson

Je est un autre. I is someone else. May the 13th 1871. The adolescent Jean Nicolas Arthur Rimbaud wrote these words in a letter to his friend George Izambard, prior to engaging in a brief revolutionary career of transgressive poetry, debauchery and rational derangement. So prophetic was the phrase that it would only come to fully pass with the advent of rock ‘n’ roll, an artform that promised the ability to shake off identity and enable anyone to become anything they wanted to be.

From a small Minnesota mining town on the Mesabi Iron Range, an ardent follower of Rimbaud, Robert Zimmerman took up the call. Having toyed with the alias Robert Allen, he settled upon the name Bob Dylan (reputedly after Dylan Thomas). Then, armed with a repertoire of leftist folk songs and traditional ballads, he set off across the states to New York City. At which point, I’m Not There picks up the story.

All biopics are hamstringed. How, in blue blazes, do you compress a person’s life into less than three hours of celluloid? And given that humans are infinitely complex contradictory characters, given that fact, fiction, memory and dreams all intermingle in a person, can there ever be such a thing as a truthful portrait? Do you take someone on what they say, what they think, their intentions or what they create?

Todd Haynes gets over these obstacles by throwing away any linear structure, instead choosing a radical multi-layered approach. Film as collage. When the concept was originally touted around that half-a-dozen actors including a small black boy and a woman would play Dylan, many laughed it off as preposterous. Like all visionary ideas though, nothing is achieved without the risk of absurdity and bathos. They were onto something that few could have envisaged (Dylan himself being an exception having sanctioned it). It’s a brave move and there’s no real explanation given in advance but once you suspend the natural expectation for a rational narrative, when you let it wash over you, the film emerges as a glorious coup.

They never mention Dylan. At least not in the singular sense. Instead there’s six of him, each a different stage or persona. I is someone else x 6. Firstly, there’s his influences. Narrating the proceedings, Ben Whishaw plays “Arthur Rimbaud”, Dylan’s literary side baptised after his long-vanished French mentor. A prodigious discovery, child-actor Marcus Carl Franklin plays Dylan as “Woody Guthrie,” a cocksure but vulnerable hobo kid, freight-train-hopping around America, talking a good talk, full of big plans to sing dustbowl ballads and songs for the working man. The looseness of the film with the truth pays dividends. By forsaking a to-the-letter appraisal of his life and work, Haynes somehow manages to get closer to Dylan than an authoritative tale ever could. Thus Heath Ledger‘s Dylan-as-film-star “Robbie Clark” embodies his turbulent private life, his marriage, paternal impulses, the cheating that sent it up in smoke, the Dylan of Blood On The Tracks. Christian Bale captures his mysterious hermetic side, his troubled desire to escape from fame for a rustic hidden life and his re-emergence as a born again Christian. Furthest out there is Richard Gere‘s “Billy The Kid”, a metaphorical, metaphysical backwoods Dylan living out in a carnivalesque Wild West, the Dylan that buries himself in riddles and myth and all the trappings of Americana. None of them stick to the truth because what is the truth anyways and who’s to define it? To try and do so is a conceit in itself (there’s a Dylan lyric that goes, “All the truth in the world adds up to one big lie”). All of them, bar none, are superlative protrayals.

The centrepiece is a phenomenal performance from Cate Blanchett as “Jude Quinn”, Dylan in full amphetamine-crazed wild mercury sound mode, the speed-freak beat poet of Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited. It’s no coincidence the high point of his career is also the high point of this film. Her Dylan is the stuff Oscars are made for. Whilst watching you frequently forget that not only is this not Dylan but it’s Cate fucking Blanchett. She captures the essence of Dylan in all his rapier-wit, his strung-out tics, little-boy passive-aggressive mannerisms and his blazing, shit-talking, cruel and brilliant monologues. It has to be seen to be believed.

You’re struck repeatedly watching I’m Not There of the extraordinary potency of music as a medium. When ‘Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again’ kicks in at the beginning there’s a palpable rush of adrenaline through the cinema, an irrefutable nameless excitement like hearing it for the first time that makes you want to dart up and roar to hell with work, money, sleep. It calls to mind that memorable phrase of Springsteen‘s about ‘Like A Rolling Stone,’ that hearing that first gunshot snare beat was like someone “kicking open the door to your mind.”

At the other end of the spectrum, Dylan’s music shown to have the ability to chill you to the bone. The performance of ‘The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll’ (Christian Bale) represents one of those moments in cinema when words, sound and light combine to create something so moving you have to remind yourself where you are and that this is a work of art and not real life. Except of course it is real life. And Hattie Carroll, 51 years old, mother to eleven children, did die following an assault from William Zantzinger’s cane. And Zantzinger received nothing more than a six-month sentence because his victim was black. That scene, where Haynes moves Dylan performing in a TV studio to some kind of Midwest farm, demonstrates how commanding the protest-era Dylan was and how devastated they must have been to lose him. In the process, it’s a scene that is a testament to the power of Haynes’ filmmaking.

In a different sense, the scenes between Heath Ledger and Charlotte Gainsbourg, documenting Dylan’s deteriorating marriage to his wife Sara, seem to encompass more than simply their personal crises. When you hear those Blood On The Tracks songs in these scenes (and they rarely sounded so good), you realise Dylan had written nothing short of a melancholic requiem for his entire generation, a lament for the Sixties dream that started out with some halcyon hopes and ended in bitterness, coke, misogyny and disappointment. They tried and they blew it but, unlike other generations, they have the comfort of having at least tried.

I’m Not There succeeds as a film in its balance of fact and fiction and in the liberties it takes with both. There is a strange cohesion in its fragments, its flitting back and forth without clarification. You’ve got the truthful depictions of a hilariously enraged Pete Seeger trying to take an axe to the electric cables at the Newport Festival and the heartbreaking scene where Dylan sits and plays by Woody Guthrie‘s deathbed and his hero slowly, painfully turns his head towards him. There is memorable cameos from a wide-eyed Allen Ginsberg, pedantic dylanologists, hyperspeed Hard Days Night era Beatles. The vignettes need not be authentic to be stunning. The scene where Blanchett’s Dylan overdoses (shown dreamily and Gondrylike, floating in the sky like a tethered balloon) is no less affecting because it didn’t happen, it no doubt very nearly did.

Even the full-on surrealist passage following his nemesis, the Mr Jones reporter, through hallucinatory visions is remarkable for its emotive power. The character follows Dylan badgering him, constantly questioning his motives. You realise it’s not just square society he represents but Dylan’s apostles and part of Dylan’s own psyche, that nagging paranoia, the voice that asks are you for real? The self-destructive side, the side that demands martyrs and sacrifices. And it makes sense why for all these years he’s been evading the media, dodging questions, answering with riddles. It’s a survival mechanism. When he takes that corner at Woodstock too sharply on his motorbike (depicted here as a screech of tyres just out of shot) and then uses his convalescence to retreat, his is a rare story of an artist stepping back from the brink, one who finally saves himself.

There is one moment that says more than any. When asked at a 1965 press conference, whether he regarded himself as a poet, he replied to the effect “I think of myself as a song and dance man actually.” Everyone laughed. But maybe he believed it. I’m Not There entices and evades like Dylan at his best. The triumph of the film is that you come away feeling you know more about Dylan than ever before and yet he’s never seemed more mysterious.

Related: I’m Not There / “Judas!” – ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ (No Direction Home) / ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ (from Don’t Look Back) / Time Magazine interview / 1965 Press Conference / Todd Haynes interview.


Darran Anderson is an Irish writer. His hobbies include whiskey, rum, vodka and regret.

Posted in: Essays