All caveats in place? Good. You can then sit back, and enjoy one of the finest biographical films ever made, period. Ironic, since the biography isn’t of a man, per se, but the bio of a lie, a construction, the fair and tall tale of the troubadour who rode the rails as a youth, learned guitar from someone named “Blind” or “Lemon” or some such thing, and burst on the scene with his pointed, “pointing” song. A man, or the idea of a man, who is also and at once, a black boy, a woman, a grizzled actor, a witness testifying, and a horseman from another time. This is a not a film about Robert Zimmerman, yet it borrows heavily from the character that he has inhabited for the last half century or so. This is a fiction about a lie more true than the truth, the story of the story, with metaphors writ large on the screen, metaphors about the smiling simile that is Bob Dylan.
The film is less impenetrable than Dylan’s lyrics, but just. It throws historical references out like rice at a wedding – look, the Beatles are doing Hard Day’s Night in the background! Look, he’s got his arm around the long haired girlfriend as he walks the streets of New York! Look yet again, a crazed balding folkie is with an axe, trying to cut the cables to stop the racket at a New England folk festival! Stories too weird to be true are, of course, drawn directly from the historical record, but transplanted here onto other characters with rustic, rural names like Woody, Billy, or Jack.
The many faces of Dylan are played by six unique actors, each bringing something unique to the portrayal. The performances are extraordinary. Simply put, Cate Blanchett reaffirms that she is the best actress of her (or perhaps any) generation – the last scene in the limo is breathtaking. Christian Bale is almost as perfect, and Heath Ledger was unrecognizable to me, so deep was he into the character he was portraying. Only Gere seemed out of place (more so even than the black boy, a phenomenal performance by Marcus Carl Franklin), yet this uncertainty seemed perfectly sensible for the phase of the myth that he was playing. On the supporting front, David Cross as Ginsberg provides great hilarity (the crucifix scene an absolute joy), and the casting of Julianne Moore as the Baez-like folkie is a stroke of genius.
This film will surely find an audience open to its many charms, but I fear for many more they will be closed to its subtlety, its elegance, and its sheer bravado. Under the conceit of multiple story lines and the dream like imagery is a uniquely powerful work touching upon the genius of Dylan and his music. The songs utilized in the film, chosen with great care from the massive catalogue, drawing alternate versions where appropriate, missing the obvious gags for the perfect music at the perfect time. The new performances by the movie’s house band are made up by musicians equally in tune with the spirit of the film, and their contribution is seamless to the whole.
Like Scorsese’s No Direction Home or of course the seminal Don’t Look Back, both of which this film explicitly mimes in parts, I’m Not There merely touches on the myriad facets of Dylan’s music, muses and career. It’s an irreverent film that paradoxically is made with great reverence for its subject, an extraordinary accomplishment for anyone willing to embrace it.