The strangest thing about Todd Haynes's new movie isn't that he cast six actors to play the various faces and phases of Bob Dylan. It's that he needed only six.
"I'm Not There" is an epic rock un-biopic, a work of staggering cinematic craft that's part jigsaw puzzle and part meditation on the mysteries of art and stardom. It's most definitely not about the man born Robert Zimmerman in 1941 in Duluth, Minn. Instead, it's about our idea of who Bob Dylan is, or should be, or how he's supposed to behave. And it's about how the artist who took that name was so deeply repelled by the notion that he - or anyone - can be pinned down with labels that he shed his skin again and again and again. Who's the real Bob Dylan? Check the title.
Haynes dramatizes this not through linear plot but in a heady, onrushing mosaic of scenes and images, loosely sewn together using Dylan songs in their original incarnations and in new cover versions (the two-disc tie-in CD is mostly terrific, but few of the cuts make it into the movie). What separates "I'm Not There" from a nostalgic waxwork like "Across the Universe" is its scrappy, mocking humor, celebrating and subverting the man and his era in the same breath.
Dylan was to celebrity what Picasso was to painting: He broke it open and viewed it from all sides simultaneously. (Bowie? Madonna? They're serving leftovers.) Each "new Dylan" was a betrayal of the one before it; the arrogance was part of the allure.
Consequently, you can't tell the players in "I'm Not There" without a scorecard. The movie begins by audaciously offering a portrait of the artist as a young black child (Marcus Carl Franklin), already telling tall tales of living the blues and crisscrossing America by freight train. The kid calls himself "Woody Guthrie" and like his Depression-era namesake carries a guitar case painted with the words "This machine kills fascists." A black southern housewife takes one look at him and says, "It's 1959. Find your own time, child."
So he metamorphoses into Jack Rollins (Christian Bale), the tormented "troubadour of conscience" of Greenwich Village's early '60s folk scene. Rollins in turn is played in a fictional Hollywood movie by a hip young actor named Robbie Clark (Heath Ledger), who himself comes to represent Dylan the early '70s superstar. Robbie will marry Claire (a gracefully moving Charlotte Gainsbourg) and toy with domesticity, but the relationship blows up in his face just in time for "Blood on the Tracks" and the end of the Vietnam War.
There's more: In the movie's most electrifying turn, Cate Blanchett has been cast as Jude Quinn, a.k.a. Dylan at the mid-'60s peak of his powers. Jude's the one who takes the stage at Newport, machine-gunning the folkies with blistering rock 'n' roll, who tours England in a deepening haze of contempt and amphetamines, who baits journalists and is dubbed a Judas by enraged audiences.
The Jude scenes are so well done they make you giddy with delight and unease. Blanchett disappears into the role as eerily as she became Kate Hepburn a few years back: The pipe-cleaner legs, the masklike shades, what critic Janet Maslin once called the "fabulous corona of unkempt hair." This Dylan's a terrified jerk, teetering on the edge of self-immolation, and the music crashes out of him in torrents.
Hovering over the film is a fifth Dylan, a poet named Arthur Rimbaud (Ben Whishaw) who answers questions put to him by a bureaucratic subcommittee. These scenes feel both tangential and to the point - "There's something kinda freakish about setting a man onstage apart from all the rest" could serve as the movie's subtext - and the same could be said for the sixth Dylan, a retired Old West outlaw named Billy (Richard Gere).
Haynes shoots the Blanchett sequences in a gritty black and white (aping the look of D.A. Pennebaker's 1967 Dylan film "Don't Look Back," with a few nods to Fellini) and the Bale section as a sub-Scorsese rock doc, but the Billy scenes are done up as a 1970s revisionist western - Altman's "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" by way of "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid," in which the singer appeared. Some commentators have found the Gere bits the weakest link in "I'm Not There," but if you know the films and you love "The Basement Tapes," they can seem terribly emotional: a ramshackle mini-movie in which Dylan the weary recluse presides over the death of the hippie dream.
Fair question: Will any of this matter if the singer means little or nothing to you? Possibly not, although if you want to see our culture of celebrity engaged at its most primal level, or if you just enjoy supremely confident moviemaking, the film can't be dismissed. Don't expect easy listening, though. The experience of watching "I'm Not There" is almost exactly like that of being dropped into one of Dylan's knottiest, most epic songs - "Desolation Row," say.
Others have tried this approach and failed, notably Dylan himself with 1977's "Renaldo and Clara" and 2003's "Masked and Anonymous" (co-written by Dylan and directed by Larry Charles). But Dylan's not a filmmaker, and one man's art doesn't always translate to another man's medium. His songs unfold like movies, but his movies rarely sing.
Haynes, by contrast, was born with a camera in his hand and a cutting room in his head. His filmography is all over the map - the Barbie-doll puppet show of "Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story," the glam-rock idolatry of "Velvet Goldmine," the Hollywood-melodrama revisionism of "Far From Heaven" - but the throughlines are cinema, pop music, and the visualization of passionate, difficult ideas.
Bob-worship is passionate and difficult by definition, of course. Either Dylan takes up a sizable block of psychic real estate in your head or you think he sings like a goat. If you know the biographical basics - a few minutes of Googling will do the trick, or a visit with Scorsese's 2005 documentary "No Direction Home" - you'll be better equipped to appreciate Haynes's dumpster-diving: The wit of Julianne Moore's imperious Joan Baez impression, the goofiness of David Cross's Allen Ginsberg, Michelle Williams literally leading Jude up the garden path as the Edie-like Warhol socialite Coco Rivington.
As the above suggests, "I'm Not There" is an intentional patchwork, and more than once Haynes stoops to the obvious. (A lugubrious "Ballad of a Thin Man" music-video number is merely clever in the style of "Across the Universe.") Is there any other way to capture such restless reinvention, though? The movie's about a man habitually fleeing meaning for pure, irreducible essence, and it can be exhausting on a first viewing. On repeat visits, though, Haynes's vision grows in comedy and in depth, much the way a favorite album seeps into one's consciousness and then into one's very being.
Who knows? Maybe the whole thing is Dylan's life flashing before his eyes as the motorcycle crashes. Maybe it's another tall tale, or a manifesto on how to cope with fame in America through Cubist rebellion. One thing is clear: In its ambitions, its failures, its back-porch humor and bone-deep dread, "I'm Not There" feels like the most alive work to hit the screen in ages.