Because no matter how earnestly anyone tries, Dylan is one of those figures that never lets you in. You don't feel like you're a part of him or his legacy, like you can with John Lennon. Martin Scorsese tried to do it in his documentary "No Direction Home" and Michael Gray wrote "The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia," but Dylan distanced himself and became too many different people to be relatable or even reachable.
This idea was something Todd Haynes, director of "I'm Not There," obviously knew going into his semi-biographical but still fictional account of the musician. Instead of using one actor to tell the tale of a man who was more than one person, he chose to dissect Dylan's different personalities with six actors. Their job: to spoon feed the audience these pieces, to give them six characters to know rather than the mess of personas and influences Dylan was.
This job is left up to Cate Blanchett, Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Richard Gere, Ben Whishaw and Carl Marcus Perkins; their characters pop out of album covers and press conference footage, tall tales and lyrics.
Blanchett and Whishaw play the most literal interpretations and the most memorable images of Dylan, the man with the wild tangle of hair, sunglasses and cigarettes, spouting off philosophical explanations to reporters. Bale plays the image of Dylan that Dylan himself spent a long time trying to give up: the man who sang "Blowin' in the Wind" to peace-seeking youth while dragging around Joan Baez (Julianne Moore). Ledger is right off the cover of "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan," trying to be a family man. Perkins and Gere play mash ups of Dylan's influences. Perkins, the Woody Guthrie obsessed youth, lives the fictional life story Dylan gave reporters in the early '60s, while Gere takes up Dylan's "All Along the Watch Tower" playground.
Living up to the hype around her role, Blanchett is the most amusing to watch; almost creepy in her impressions of Dylan's taped backseat conversations. She completely captures post-protest singer Dylan's disillusionment. In one scene, Dylan dances around a white crucifix with poet Allen Ginsberg (David Cross) yelling, "Hey! Play your old stuff!" Christian Bale's performance, however, is the most convincing. He somehow brings the bewildered eyes of a folk singer turned peace movement hero to his face.
If you can focus on these people despite the way Haynes weaves them together, "I'm Not There" is a fun watch, especially for worshipful Dylan fans. However, going into the film without any background on Dylan or wasting your mental energy on deciphering the sequencing makes "I'm Not There" a maddening headache. The movie clips on at a quick tempo; there isn't time to anguish over images or ask the twentysomething guy next to you, "Wait & he was a preacher?"
"I'm Not There" is the ultimate piece of fan-fiction, although Haynes has said that he didn't need to contribute to the fandom or the worship of Dylan because "that's taken care of." We might have though it was taken care of when Scorsese released his four-hour plunge into the musician's life, "No Direction Home." Although "I'm Not There" references Scorsese's documentary by spoofing scenes where an older, less edgy Baez talks about her "special friend," Haynes' approach seems like a piece that we never knew was missing in the never- ending study of Dylanology.
Haynes is shameless in his tribute to Dylan. You can be almost certain he was that kid in high school, but his homage isn't embarrassing like an awkward freshman trying to befriend his senior idol. "I'm Not There" is a distinct, visually incredible take on the biographical film. As the film makes clear, we now know our legends by how many actors it takes to play their part.