The biopic is a very easy genre to get wrong. Compressing someone’s lifetime into a two and a quarter hour film forces some uneven narrative choices. Focus on one period of the subject’s life? Before they were famous? The subject on the cusp of fame? At the height of their fame? The aftermath of fame? Or try to encompass the entire timeline, building individual scenes or sequences around the more dramatic and/or controversial moments, thereby running the risk of reducing the film to a “greatest hits” package rather than engaging aesthetically with the subject’s life and legacy.
Point of comparison: one of my favourite biopics of the last decade, Stephen Hopkins’s ‘The Life and Death of Peter Sellers’ is based on Roger Lewis’s biography of the same title. Hopkins’s film runs a shade over two hours. Lewis’s book is an epic 1,100 pages.
So: to Todd Haynes’s ‘I’m Not There’. And I must admit, off the bat, that I have only the most superficial knowledge of Bob Dylan’s life. I’m still debating whether this proved advantageous or onerous to my appreciation of it.
What Haynes does, essentially, is reimagine the biopic as fantasia, not so much examining Bob Dylan’s life as exploring various facets of him – his influences, his alter ego(s), his obfuscations and his contemporaries. In order to isolate each of these, while still incorporating them into a patchwork quilt of a whole, Haynes casts a different actor – and often employs a different aesthetic approach – to each facet. Hence we have Ben Wishaw as Arthur Rimbaud, facing interrogation and beguiling his questioners with evasive cant; Christian Bale as both Jack Rollins, the earnest and almost cripplingly shy folk singer and Pastor John, his post-conversion alter ego; Heath Ledger as Robbie Clark, the charismatic but arrogant actor playing Rollins in a Hollywood biopic; Richard Gere as an aged, in-hiding Billy the Kid about to find himself back in conflict with an equally decrepit Pat Garrett (Bruce Greenwood); Cate Blanchett as Jude Quinn, a folk singer who angers fans and critics alike by adopting the electric guitar and enters into a war of words with TV interviewer Keenan Jones (Greenwood again); and Marcus Carl Franklin as a prepubescent black kid calling himself Woody Guthrie and spinning tales, with an ornery pragmatism beyond his years, of a life spent riding the rails.
The cast give it their all, with Bale and Ledger in particular delivering, if not career bests, then performances that deserve comparison to their absolute best. Blanchett is revelatory – the gimmick of casting a woman as one of the six aspects of Dylan ceases to be a gimmick within seconds. Blanchett’s drawn and haunted face is the perfect counterpoint to Quinn’s long dark night of the soul as he drifts down into 60s netherworld of Warhol acolytes. Kudos, too, to Michelle Williams as the Edie Sedgwick inspired Coco – although not playing Sedgwick directly, Williams channels her waif-like enigmatic allure far more effectively than Sienna Miller in ‘Factory Girl’.
Haynes’s appropriation of the avant garde aesthetic during this sequence is a spot-on pastiche, arguably the most perfect fusion of time, place and music in a work that sometimes wavers dangerously in its fine-line walk between artistic extrapolation and pretentious wankery. The oddest exegesis of his approach is in the Billy the Kid scenes, which play out like Peckinpah b-roll spliced with some Jodorowsky outtakes.
It’s frustrating, fascinating, flawed and fanciful to greater or lesser degrees. It thumbs its nose at the reviewer, challenging to be met on any terms other than its own. It ends with some brief footage of Bob Dylan onstage, a reminder that the film has, at one and the same time, brought us no closer to the real Dylan and vastly broadened our perspective of him.