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I'm Not There

Hayne's approach is daring, complex and brilliantly suited to his subject: Bob Dylan

In his 1998 rock 'n' roll fantasia Velvet Goldmine, about a reporter investigating a mysterious old rock star, Todd Haynes cheekily updated Citizen Kane, in part to restate its contention that human character defies analysis. Haynes revisits the theme only to explode it further, and magnificently, with I'm Not There, his take on Bob Dylan.

Hayne's approach is daring, complex and brilliantly suited to his subject: Dylan, infamous reinventor of self, is represented by six different actors playing six different characters, none named "Bob Dylan" (as of course Dylan himself originally wasn't). Two are familiar 1960s personas: fiery, rough-hewn political folk singer Jack Rollins (Christian Bale) and caustic, mod-suited, nimbus-haired rocker Jude Quinn (a gender-bending Cate Blanchett). A third is a private Bob: Robbie Clark (Heath Ledger), a James Dean-had-he-lived-like actor who once played Rollins in a movie. Haynes adds three fantasy personas: Arthur Rimbaud (Ben Whishaw), a scruffily dandified poet; a guitar-playing 11-year-old black hobo who calls himself "Woody Guthrie" (Marcus Carl Franklin); and Billy McCarty (Richard Gere) -- Billy the Kid ungunned-down, instead survived to late middle age in some backwoods mythic America.

Except for Rimbaud, seen monologuing in police custody, each of the characters careens into some crisis, often one yanked straight from Dylan's well-documented bio: Mid-1960s fans screeching "sell-out" in Newport; an ugly divorce; his near-fatal motorcycle accident. The stories, each with its distinctive cinematic style, are intercut -- all happening at once -- but the narratives arc alike: In a world intent on pinning him with labels or responsibility, each Dylan in this kaleido-scape is forced to shape-shift to continue pursuit of his muse.

Haynes' triumph is to both express each Dylan in such distinctive terms and yet show, prismatically, that they're one. If there is a better way, for instance, to connote the teen-age Dylan's precocity, naiveté and self-mythologizing cultural presumption than to reincarnate him as a world-weary, rail-hopping adolescent African-American troubadour, I'd like to see it. Hayne's fiction has young Woody nearly drowning (with shades of Pinocchio) after a tussle with some scary old hobos; that he's rescued and embraced by some quintessential American bourgeoisie is as funny to watch as it is painfully incisive.

As with the youngest Dylan, so with the oldest. Gere's Billy the Kid recalls one of Dylan's mythic heroes. Still hunted by the ancient lawman Pat Garrett, Haynes' version lives in a cabin just outside Riddle, a frontier carnival town where imagination rules, it's always Halloween and "who a fella was never really mattered."

Haynes' "real" Dylans, too, are pursued, trapped. They are also watched. In early sequences, a first-person camera turns the audience into a collective Dylan, gazed at hard by people in the street. Rollins is delivered at a remove, via a faux 1980s documentary about the "Blowin' in the Wind" songwriter turned born-again Christian minister. Clark, the actor, watches himself on the silver screen with his girlfriend/future ex-wife while a voiceover says, "It wasn't the film they had dreamed ... the film they wanted to live." And the brilliant Blanchett's mercurial, pill-popping Jude Quinn -- the Dylan who goes electric -- is a '60s pop star who can't take the attention, the touring or even the questions that come with the job.

Most fascinating is Jude's relationship with Keenan Jones, a British pundit who hounds the singer mercilessly, goading him to say what he really thinks -- or even just learn whether his could-give-a-fuck mask hides someone who feels anything. Initially, Jones seems a stand-in for the clueless journalists the real Dylan savaged in D.A. Pennebaker's classic 1967 documentary Don't Look Back. But Haynes turns the tables: Jones, played by Bruce Greenwood, may be supercilious, but he really does burrow under Jude's skin. Jones is even the Javert who, on national TV, outs Jude as a small-town middle-class Jewish kid -- recalling the "real" real Dylan we never see at all.

Not everything in I'm Not There works. Haynes' "Ballad of a Thin Man" sequence (ostensibly Jude's riposte to "Mr. Jones") is too literal, a clunky music video. And purists will complain about such license as this: When, in 1966 London, an aggrieved folkie shouted "Judas" at Electric Bob, the curtain didn't drop, as Haynes has it; instead, Dylan growled "Play fucking loud" to his band and launched into a majestic "Like a Rolling Stone."

But a few bum notes don't ruin a great song. I'm Not There begins with a post-motorcycle-crash Dylan on the slab, where an autopsy's initial scalpel slice -- as the soundtrack's Dylan wails, "Oh, mama, can this really be the eeeend" -- signals that Haynes (who co-wrote the script with Oren Moverman) will be probing deeply. His Dylans are wrongdoing as well as wronged, selfish, cruel, sometimes misogynistic. But they're all complex. Haynes even meets biographical weirdness head-on: A sermon by preacher Rollins is sincerely apocalyptic and it's delivered, with hilarious pathos, to a basement congregation that barely outnumbers the singer's backing gospel band. Haynes consistently matches the pain his protagonist(s) causes -- and feels -- with his urge to flee into his imagination, a dynamic especially evident when Robbie's dreary reality in divorce court is intercut with sequences in Billy's beloved, eternally unreal Riddle.

Some years ago, Dylan's visionary, mocking "Jokerman" found him "shedding off one more layer of skin / Keeping one step ahead of the persecutor within." Way back, he sang, "He not busy being born is busy dying." I'm Not There expands on the theme. For the film's subject, a desire to dwell somewhere that never existed is inseparable from the spirit that produced his music. The movie isn't about exculpating him, just admitting that complexity.

Starts Wed., Nov. 21. Manor

I'm Not There
It ain't him: Cate Blanchett as "Jude Quinn."