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You can call me Bobby, or you can call me Zimmy: Blanchett in I’m Not There.

Pieces of Bob

By Shawn Stone

I’m Not There

Directed by Todd Haynes

Audacious and rollicking, this fictional view of “the many lives of” Bob Dylan is a feast of music and fun. Director and co-writer Todd Haynes knows all of Dylan’s tricks; the difference between Haynes and Dylan’s other chroniclers is that Haynes knows which tricks are worth falling for, and which aren’t.

The film’s well-publicized conceit is that Dylan is split into six separate characters: Woody (Marcus Carl Franklin), a guitar-strumming, rail-riding black kid; Jack (Christian Bale), a protest singer who leaves it all behind for Jesus; Rimbaud (Ben Whishaw), a foppish poet being interrogated by doughy establishment figures; Billy the Kid (Richard Gere), an aged gunslinger in a funhouse 19th-century America, who seems to represent Dylan’s own mythologized vision of himself; Robbie (Heath Ledger), an actor turned self-obsessed celebrity; and Jude (Cate Blanchett), who is Dylan circa 1965, at his Zeitgeist-taming, pill-popping, skirt-chasing peak.

The film shifts from one “Bob” to another (and back again) effortlessly, with the songs and social context of the 1960s floating in the air like so much cigarette smoke. If Blanchett gets to give the showy star turn as genius Bob, Ledger earns the acting laurels as asshole Bob. It’s also worth noting that he’s the only actor who disappears into the part.

The rest of the cast is as good or better, from David Cross as a lighter-than-air Allen Ginsberg to Julianne Moore as a patrician, yet cutting, Joan Baez-type. Charlotte Gainsbourg, as Mrs. Bob, gives the most nuanced, affecting performance.

The soundtrack is awash in Dylan tunes performed by an array of indie-rock heroes like Cat Power and Yo La Tengo, to mostly good result; given how awful Dylan’s singing is on the original Blood on the Tracks version, it’s safe to say that Jeff Tweedy now owns “Simple Twist of Fate.” Those moments when the songs are presented performance-style, like when Blanchett’s Jude offends the folkies with electric instruments, or Jim James (of rock band My Morning Jacket), in 19th-century regalia and wearing whiteface, sings the transcendent “Goin’ to Acapulco” to a gathering of losers and left-behinds, are enormously effective.

With its overt hat-tips to the likes of French New Wave masters Jean-Luc Godard and Jacques Demy, movie geeks will relish I’m Not There’s witty references to 1960s cinema. Whether casting the great Don Francks (the Woody Guthrie-esque lead in Coppola’s Finian’s Rainbow) as a hobo, or re-creating a famous, bleakly hilarious scene from Richard Lester’s Petulia, Haynes isn’t just playing a game. He’s making a connection between Dylan’s music and the larger artistic movements of a period when the goal was more freedom in expression, not less. If there are any villains in I’m Not There, it’s those who try to categorize—and, thereby, restrict—expression. And “they,” personified by a snotty BBC culture vulture (the great Bruce Greenwood sporting a very funny, over-the-top accent), get “theirs” in the film’s pointed presentation of “Ballad of a Thin Man.”

I’m Not There doesn’t simply suggest that genius is unknowable, it’s that we’re all, to a large extent, unknowable—even to ourselves. Haynes seems to suggest that the real honor, and Dylan’s achievement, is in trying to transcend this.

It’s certainly more credible than saving the world with protest songs.

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