Just about every inspired film emerges out of some kind of obsession. The singular haunting beauty of I’m Not There, Todd Haynes’ thrilling deep-vision meditation on the music and many lives of Bob Dylan, is that obsession isn’t just its fuel — it’s the movie’s spirit and subject, its driving force. Haynes shoots way past love or worship. He’s addicted to Dylan, to his jingle-jangle sound and ornery grace, and he wants to lure you right inside that intoxication. Haynes splits Dylan into six different actors, leaping around key periods in his life from the late ’50s through the early ’80s (Allen Ginsberg, Edie Sedgwick, the Beatles, and Norman Mailer all amble through), and he treats the songs as a heavenly chorus. The moment you hear the spiky sweet propulsion of ”Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again” over the opening credits, you’re reminded that no one ever made pop music more incandescent than Bob Dylan. Haynes is out to find the source of that light, that mystery. And so he treats each moment, whether iconic (Dylan visiting the dying Woody Guthrie; his electric-folk revolution at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival) or intimate (like the dissolution of his first marriage), as a reality to be riffed on, toyed with. I’m Not There is a fantasia, a tell-all, a biopic that’s all high points, a folk-rock essay, and a dream, all wrapped into one. It plays like the headiest musical ever made.
Haynes, whose last film was the great Far From Heaven (2002), may be the only director alive who can stage a movie as a brain-tickling semiotic experiment and still pack every frame with flesh-and-blood passion. In design, I’m Not There is a trip through the ”masks” and identities Bob Dylan wore and discarded (sometimes without even knowing it), and Haynes layers and connects those images with nimble, fun-loving trickery. Dylan starts off as an 11-year-old black kid (the witty young Marcus Carl Franklin uncannily mimics Dylan’s sidelong grin and faux-dust-bowl drawl), already trying on a personality as if it were a suit of clothes; he rides the rails, passing himself off as a troubadour named Woody. In his Greenwich Village coffeehouse days, Dylan is played by Christian Bale as Jack Rollins, folkie and civil rights protest singer — a close gloss on the real thing. But then we see a cornball 1965 Hollywood version of the Jack Rollins story called Grain of Sand, starring a hot young actor in the Dean/Brando mold named Robbie (Heath Ledger). Robbie becomes a version of Dylan (got it?), as we trace the collapse of his marriage to an artist played by Charlotte Gainsbourg. And I haven’t even mentioned Cate Blanchett, under Wayfarers and frizzy hair, who does a spectacular, soul-on-the-sleeve enactment of Dylan in his Don’t Look Back media-put-on phase. Blanchett makes Dylan a cussed dude who uses his wit to wound, and Haynes’ slyest joke is that the actress, from her lurching marionette posture to her boyish cheekbones to her slurry misanthropic mumble, is the film’s most exquisitely spot-on Bob.
In I’m Not There, every aspect of Dylan’s life — singer, icon of cool, walled-off pop star, even failed husband — is a role, a concoction, and thus his aura of authenticity is the least authentic thing about him. Haynes wants us to experience the ”real” Dylan as a spirit, a force larger than all his images, as he is passed from one actor to the next. Yet none of the gamesmanship would mean much if I’m Not There didn’t present Dylan in such an intensely personal way. The divorce scenes singe your heart — it’s the boomers, after the ’60s, falling from grace. Blanchett’s Dylan, sparring with a British journalist (Bruce Greenwood), is an overworked, pill-popping narcissist whose agony is the knowledge that every word that defines him — ”protest,” ”folk singer,” ”authentic” — turns to sham the moment it’s heard from the mouth of the media. Richard Gere, in the Edenic backwater Missouri green, plays a fanciful version of Dylan in his Basement Tapes/roving-outlaw wilderness days, and if this is the one section of the movie that’s too vague, it’s also elusively sad. One feels a redemption of the most ironic kind when Bale shows up as the born-again Christian Bob, singing the transcendent (if little-known) song ”Pressing On” to a rec-room congregation in the early ’80s.
What’s finally so moving about I’m Not There is that it’s a story of loss. Dylan, as the film portrays him, is a revolutionary who loses his innocence, his idealism, his wife and family, his connection to his audience, his sanity, even his dog. He finds no direction home. Yet the ultimate thing that’s lost is what his music is — and Dylan, in the sublime final moments, is right to say that we always knew it wasn’t ”folk.” It’s something holy and unnameable and beautiful and pure. I’m Not There lets you hear it again, more majestically than ever. A