Most of the world's popular music lovers are familiar with the singer-songwriter Bob Dylan. But given the wildly different "faces" Dylan has projected over his nearly half century in the public eye, it can be hard to get a sense of the man behind such songs as Blowin' In the Wind, Just Like a Woman, and You Gotta Serve Somebody. Exploring that enigma was the challenge taken up by director Todd Haynes when he created I'm Not There, a dramatic — and many say Oscar-worthy — feature film. VOA's Adam Phillips reports, Haynes chose to portray several of the more intriguing Bob Dylan personas — from folk hero and poet to rock star, born-again Christian and outlaw — as separate characters by well-known stars.
Most Bob Dylan fans can easily identify a classic Dylan song within the first few notes. And when, at the beginning of I'm Not There, one hears the snap of the snare drum at the top of 1965's Like a Rolling Stone, moviegoers know they are in for a musical treat.
But Like a Rolling Stone, which Rolling Stone Magazine called "the greatest song of all time," is one of only two of the 26 Dylan songs in the film that are performed by Bob Dylan himself. The other songs in the movie are renditions by other artists of Dylan songs that mirror different phases of his evolution.
"In whatever I read, it would become extremely evident that [Dylan] was this 'serial changer,'" says director Todd Haynes, who spent several years researching the musician's life. "Dylan was a person who couldn't reside in the same skin at times for what seemed like more than a few months."
One of those "skins" is expressed by a song called When the Ship Comes In, which Dylan wrote at the dawn of his career in the early 1960s. That Bob Dylan, who was enthralled by itinerant folk balladeer Woody Guthrie, is evoked in the film by a boxcar-riding hobo named Woody, portrayed by 14-year-old African American actor and singer Marcus Carl Franklin.
"He's very outgoing," Franklin says of his character, "and I love him because he can talk to anyone. He is very engaging."
A bit later, during the folk revival phase of his career, Dylan used his outsized popularity to champion the common man, in songs like The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll. In I'm Not There, the Bob Dylan persona who wrote this song is a self-effacing populist named Jack Rollins, played by Christian Bale.
In one early scene, Rollins is interviewed on a very conventional TV program. When asked why he has "taken the hearts of young people," he says, sheepishly, "I don't know. I just got a lot of thoughts inside of me. And most people keep it all inside. I guess it's for them that I do what I do."
Movie audience members might find the multi-tiered concept behind I'm Not There difficult to grasp at first. So did many of the cast members.
Ben Whishaw, who plays a bohemian named Arthur Rimbaud (a name he shares with the surrealistic 19th century French poet whom Dylan credits as a major literary inspiration), said it took him several readings of the screenplay before he "got it."
"Each time it's like a jigsaw puzzle," Whishaw says. "And you see how intricately it is put together and just how clever it is, and how if there was any way of way of representing this man, this is it."
Cate Blanchett, who plays Jude Quinn, an androgynous persona Dylan developed during his rock n' roll superstar phase, calls the film "a composite profile." "It's like each of us [actors] is inhabiting a different part of the outward persona, imagining what the inward persona of Dylan might possibly be," she says. "Through the juxtaposition of those things you have a whole."
Blanchett portrays Dylan during a period of his career that many consider his most brilliant musically and lyrically. His silhouetted profile — long frizzy hair haloed in a brilliant spotlight — became an icon of the era.
Then as now, Bob Dylan was famously unpredictable in his dealings with the media. I'm Not There includes a sequence that echoes a famous interview he had with the chief arts editor at the BBC in London. When the editor said to Dylan that some might be persuaded to doubt his sincerity, Dylan answered, "What makes you think I'm sincere?" Asked if he was saying he was not sincere, Dylan said, "I am more sincere than you are. You just want me to say what you want me to say!"
Another Bob Dylan character in the film is an arrogant painter turned actor played by Heath Ledger. His self-absorption and neglect of his family result in its breakup, a crisis the real life Dylan expressed in songs like Simple Twist of Fate, during the mid 1970s.
The so-called "Born Again Bob" of the early 1980s is glimpsed when the Jack Rollins character becomes a singing Christian preacher later in life.
But one of Bob Dylan's most enduring roles is as the freedom-loving man who lives alone, according to his own rules. This Dylan is portrayed by the actor Richard Gere as the outlaw "Billy the Kid," unkempt, grown old, living roughly, out West with only a dog for a friend. "He's filled with regret [and] filled with guilt," Gere says of his character, "who is asking himself 'What's next for me? What's next after this fairly complex life?'"
The actual Bob Dylan, now 66, reflected publicly on his own life in his 2004 autobiography, Chronicles Volume 1
and in filmmaker Martin Scorcese's 2005 Dylan documentary, No Direction Home
While we can't know how many more faces Dylan will show us in the years ahead, Todd Haynes' film I'm Not There reminds us how eagerly we still wonder who Bob Dylan, the man and the artist, really is. To quote one of Dylan's most famous early songs, "the answer is blowing in the wind."