I consider myself pretty well versed in the Bob Dylan mythos. I’ve seen Don’t Look Back and No Direction Home. I’ve read excerpts from his autobiography. I can recite the lyrics of many of the famous songs.

But I was completely lost in I’m Not There, a sort-of reverse portrait of the enigmatical Minnesota boy who dubbed himself Bob Dylan. With alter egos portrayed by Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett and Richard Gere, among others, screenwriter Oren Moverman and screenwriter/director Todd Haynes seek to examine the fractured mythologies of Dylan: the hobo, the prophet, the outlaw and so on.

It’s one of the most daring cinematic experiments of recent years, but utterly opaque. Only Cate Blanchett, as electric Dylan, held my full attention. A subplot about a painter (Charlotte Gainsbourg) married to an actor who once played a Dylan-like character in a movie (Heath Ledger) was so far afield, I couldn’t reconcile it with the rest of the plots, which seemed to be chapters of Dylan’s actual life.

True Dylanologists will hopefully one day explain to me what all of it meant. If the point is that there is no essential truth to Dylan, then so be it. But surely there are better ways to dramatize the inability to separate the artist and the art. Persona and 8 1/2 repeatedly came to my mind.

There were two dream-like sequences whose meaning I don’t need or want explained. One is where a reporter (Bruce Greenwood) seemingly experiences what it is to be Dylan, seeing himself in everyone, performing for a crowd as a freak in a cage. The other is a funeral dirge in the carnie town of Riddle, MO. Jim James’ rendition of ‘Goin to Acapulco’ affected me on some deeper level than an abstract movie riffing on a long-marginalized musician.

I’m Not There is an unconventional biopic, but a fascinating one. To be fair, Todd Solondz and Luis Buñuel had more success casting multiple actors as different personalities of the same character (Palindromes and That Obscure Object of Desire, respectively). I think, ultimately, I’m Not There fails the ‘musician movie test’: would my time have been better spent just listening to music?

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IMDb Bob Dylan bio