Biopics are about the last place on Earth to get a real idea about the life of a celebrated figure. By the time a mass of characters has been boiled down to composites, and events have been placed out of order, and a general sheen of lovableness and/or importance has been spread over what was once a messy, complicated life, the resultant product can only, at best, give you an idea of what that person was about.
Leave it to the brilliant Todd Haynes, then, to cut right to the idea of Bob Dylan in his new film “I’m Not There” without attempting to cover the usual biopic bases.
Haynes began his career as a filmmaker while majoring in semiotics — the study of signs and symbols in literary and filmic texts — with the acclaimed short “Superstar,” which used Barbie dolls to act out the tragic story of Karen Carpenter, plagued by an eating disorder by which she made her body resemble the dimensions of the slender plastic toy. To illustrate Dylan and his impact on popular culture, Haynes draws on a flesh-and-blood cast but assigns six performers to portray different aspects of Dylan’s life.
“I’m Not There” weaves a tapestry between these performances, showing us aspects of Dylan that include his early years as a devotee of old-school blues (young Marcus Carl Franklin as “Woody”), his early fame as a folk star (Christian Bale as “Jack”), the electric, rocking Dylan (Cate Blanchett as “Jude”), and even Dylan-as-phony (Heath Ledger as an actor who plays a Dylan-esque character in a film but can’t live up to that image off-screen).
Like the Barbie dolls in “Superstar,” the casting at first seems like a distancing joke, but Haynes is brilliant at tearing off the top of his own head and giving audiences a peek into his pop obsessions. Whether it’s the music of the Carpenters or the outlaw romance of Genet (“Poison”) or the delirious melodrama of Douglas Sirk (“Far From Heaven”), Haynes is a master at translating old cultural phenomena into new and bold statements, and that’s exactly what he does with Dylan here. Dylan fans will no doubt pick up on countless little inside jokes and references along the way, but even if you’ve never been particularly interested in Dylan’s music, Haynes will take you on an entertaining ride.
“I’m Not There” doesn’t solely operate on a musical level, either — in looking at the era of Dylan, Haynes casts a wide net, throwing in nods to films like Elia Kazan’s “A Face in the Crowd” (which was about a popular folksinger who also happened to be a phony and a rotter) and Richard Lester’s ’60s classics “A Hard Day’s Night” (a celebration of the ebullience of pop music) and “Petulia” (a haunting exploration of the spiritual chaos of the Vietnam era). But again — you don’t have to get the references to be thrilled by what Haynes does here, mixing genres together in a blender, shocking the audience (Dylan’s infamous “electric” debut at the Newport Jazz Festival is portrayed as the singer and his band literally opening fire on the crowd), and even reinterpreting the music (the songs in the film are all Dylan’s, but they’re all performed by other artists).
Most of the performances — particularly Blanchett and Charlotte Gainsbourg, as Ledger’s wife — are top-notch, but in the final analysis, Todd Haynes is the star here. And as one of the most exciting American directors working today, he has more than earned that place in the spotlight.