Think for a moment about the Bob Dylan you know from images. There he is preaching the righteous cause in cafés. There he is glassy-eyed and backlit, singing love songs to a wife he would soon divorce. There he is at Jerusalem's Western Wall, yarmulke-clad, shortly after singing fiery gospel songs about Jesus and the end of the world. None of those images fit into the musical biopic formula that worked for Ray and Walk The Line. There is no arc; the pieces barely fit.
In I'm Not There, an ingenious, maddening film inspired by the "many lives of Bob Dylan," director Todd Haynes (Velvet Goldmine, Far From Heaven) doesn't even try to force them together. Six actors play variations on Dylan, none of them chosen for any physical resemblance. Trying to shrug off the voice-of-a-generation yoke through an amphetamine haze, a surrogate named Jude plays teasing games with the press familiar from D.A. Pennebaker's vérité tour documentary Don't Look Back. Jude wants to plug in and rock out, but as he wanders through a landscape sculpted from bits of Richard Lester, Federico Fellini, Jean-Luc Godard, and Andy Warhol, his new freedom starts to look like its own kind of cage. Even with its surreal asides, Jude's segment is the closest Haynes hews to Dylan's actual biography—as his leading man, he casts an unrecognizable, dragged-up Cate Blanchett.
Elsewhere, a young, hoboing Dylan questing for his identity (and covering up his past with lie after lie) is realized as Woody, an 11-year-old African-American kid (Marcus Carl Franklin). Christian Bale becomes the firebrand Dylan, Heath Ledger an actor whose marriage (to Charlotte Gainsbourg) echoes the cycle of love and disillusion songs Dylan wrote for his wife Sara, and Richard Gere plays Billy The Kid, a Dylan surrogate who drifts through a revisionist Western landscape drawn from the strand of Dylan songs reflective of what Greil Marcus dubbed the "old weird America."
The more Dylan you take into I'm Not There, the more you'll get out of it. And even for the devout, Haynes' daring and reference games don't always pay off. A sequence set to the square-checks-out-the-counterculture classic "Ballad Of A Thin Man" is way too on-the-nose, moments when Dylan lyrics turn up in the dialogue clang like failed jokes, and the film doesn't so much end as slowly fade out. But the missteps don't detract from the thrilling brilliance of the filmmaking (aided by the remarkable cinematographer Ed Lachman), or dim the sense that Haynes was right in deciding that the fractions of the man would add up to more than the man himself.