Bob Dylan is not at the Toronto International Film Festival. But six shades of Dylan are present with “I’m Not There,” a swirling, shifting ramble through the many lives of one of the most enigmatic figures in music history.
Different actors — including Richard Gere, Heath Ledger, Christian Bale and Cate Blanchett — play incarnations of Dylan at various phases of his public and private life.
Among the personas: an 11-year-old black boy (Marcus Carl Franklin) riding the rails with a guitar and calling himself Woody Guthrie, Dylan’s early inspiration; a surrealist sage called Arthur (Ben Whishaw) speaking in symbolic riddles, representing Dylan’s fascination with poet Arthur Rimbaud; and old coot Billy the Kid (Gere) traveling the Old West in self-imposed retirement from the modern world, a parallel to Dylan’s rootsy sojourn as a reclusive country squire around Woodstock, N.Y., where he hung with the Band and recorded “The Basement Tapes.”
Weird and wild as it is, Dylan liked the concept and gave co-writer-director Todd Haynes the rarest of gifts: the rights to use his music in the film, both in his own versions and many covers.
“I still really can’t believe it, given who he is and how ornery he can be and how much he doesn’t want people to continue to do this to him,” Haynes said in an interview at the Toronto festival, where “I’m Not There” played in advance of its November theatrical release.
Haynes, whose films include “Safe” and “Velvet Goldmine,” was a Dylan fan as a teen but had not listened much to his music again until his late 30s, when he began the screenplay for his 2002 drama “Far From Heaven.”
Many faces of DylanAs he burrowed back into the music, Haynes began reading biographies of Dylan and was struck by the man’s transformations.
“The thing I just kept hearing from every account of Dylan was about this life of serial change, in a way far more profound to a culture than David Bowie’s different chameleonlike changes or Madonna’s that would come decades later. These changes had deep intellectual, cultural, almost physical effects on Dylan’s audience,” Haynes said.
“He undermines the things you count on, your touchstones. He shakes up the things that people used to build their own selves on. Every time you grab on to him, he’s somewhere else. I thought the only way to do anything in a film about him would be to dramatize that fact, to use that as the sort of principle to organize the narrative, or many narratives.”
So the formative Dylan is a black kid tramping about the country, insisting he’s Guthrie, until a kindly woman tells him, “Live your own time, child. Sing about your own time.”
Bale plays a figure named Jack Rollins, exploding onto the folk scene doing early Dylan anthems such as “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” then turning his back on his career and re-emerging years later as a singing pastor, representing Dylan’s born-again Christian era.
Ledger’s a ’60s movie star named Robbie Clark who rose to fame playing folk god Rollins, with the actor’s fractious personal life and failed marriage tracing Dylan’s own faults and missteps.
“It’s not a puff piece on Bob Dylan,” Haynes said. “There’s different characters, and they can be really nasty, misogynistic, and again, because there’s no final say, there’s no single winner.”
Blanchett as BobThough played by a woman, the musician who goes electric in the mid-1960s presents the closest parallel to the real Dylan, with Blanchett delivering a remarkable personification of Dylan’s look and mannerisms as he is challenged by critics and scorned by once-adoring fans.
Blanchett’s Jude Quinn, an acoustic hero to folk devotees, plugs in at a New England music fest just as Dylan did at Newport, shocking and even enraging his audience. “I’m Not There” handles the slap in the face to fans with an opening salvo that features Jude and his band blasting the audience not with electric guitars, but machine guns.
Later, a legendary 1966 Dylan show in Britain is recreated faithfully, with a fan shouting “Judas!” Jude responds just as Dylan did, exclaiming, “I don’t believe you!”
From the start, Haynes had planned the gender switch for that period of Dylan’s life.
“It was really smart of Todd to cast a woman to play it, because I think it increases that break,” Blanchett said. “The distance, the enigma of Dylan and the performer.
“It’s very mysterious and incredibly poetic, and if the audience is expecting a straight narrative, then they’re going to be surprised. It’s kind of true in a way to his music, which is what Todd really tried to do.”
Haynes has yet to meet Dylan, having worked with him only through intermediaries. Dylan also has not seen the film, which Haynes is sending to him.
“I can’t wait. I’m really excited about him seeing it,” Haynes said. “Maybe I’m being foolishly naive, but in terms of that sense of humor about himself and in terms of that sense of wanting to stir things up and change the sort of authorized views of himself, I think he will appreciate at least what we tried to do.”