'Full-on Rave' for Dylan Film

"I'm Not There," Todd Haynes's oblique, fragmented fictional portrait of Bob Dylan, presents him as a handful of alter egos, none of whom is called Bob Dylan. They often speak in a dense mélange of lines appropriated from interviews—one with NEWSWEEK—documentaries and song lyrics, as well as passages from Rimbaud and who knows who else. Haynes pays deliberate tribute to Godard and Fellini—he's even got a snippet of Nino Rota's score for "Casanova"—and, in a scene where our hero gets stoned and giggly with the Beatles, he unmistakably evokes the look and the spacy mood of "Teletubbies." But Dylan's own songs—some surreal, some passionately direct, some cryptically autobiographical, and many assembled from appropriated tunes and words—seem to be the strongest influence on this brilliantly strange, often funny and ultimately heartbreaking film.

The plot? Let's just say it begins with the autopsy and funeral of Jude Quinn, alter ego of the mid-'60s Dylan, the dandy with big hair and sunglasses. Then we meet a much earlier Dylan figure, an 11-year-old black kid who calls himself Woody Guthrie (Marcus Carl Franklin), hopping freights with his guitar. Then a rebellious political folk singer (Christian Bale). Then an actor (Heath Ledger) who plays the folk singer in a biopic. Then the androgynous Quinn (Cate Blanchett) at the peak of his superstardom, harassed to near death by fans and journalists. Finally, an old, or aging, coot named Billy (Richard Gere), once the Kid, self-exiled in the mountains. And we keep coming back to Arthur (Ben Wishaw), a poet who gives his last name as Rimbaud, being interrogated by an unidentified committee. The movie is both a series of disconnected vignettes and a unitary narrative mirroring Dylan's life and career, with a shape-shifting protagonist.

If you're up on your Dylan minutiae, "I'm Not There" is old home day. You know that the scary-looking man the black kid visits in a hospital is the real Woody Guthrie, dying of Huntington's chorea. A shot of a tarantula and another of three angels will remind you of Dylan's novel and song by those titles; the name Quinn will ring a bell, too—"The Mighty Quinn" on "The Basement Tapes." The doctored footage of Lyndon Johnson saying "Death to all those who would whimper and cry" will make you smile when you recall that in "Tombstone Blues" (sung in the film by Richie Havens) this line is attributed to "the commander in chief." You know about the breakup of Dylan's marriage, the pain of which is reflected in the devastating 1974 album "Blood on the Tracks," and you'll recognize the film's slow, quiet, intolerably sad version of "Idiot Wind" as the original version, which Dylan held back and rerecorded for the album's release.

But what if you don't know any of this? You might recognize a familiar narrative design—rise and fall, loss and survival—but all the different actors and stories might seem an arbitrary and simple-mindedly literal way to make Shakespeare's point that in his life a man plays many parts. Of course, you could just sit back and enjoy the ride: eye-catching cinematography (by Edward Lachman, who got an Oscar nomination for Haynes's "Far From Heaven"), Dylan songs well sung by the likes of Tom Verlaine, Jim James of My Morning Jacket and Dylan himself—others aren't sung so well—and a performance by Cate Blanchett so convincing and intense that you shrink back in your seat when she fixes you with her gaze.

At this point, though, is there anyone who knows nothing about Dylan? He's become a touchstone of cultural literacy: you know he started as a folk singer and wrote "Like a Rolling Stone" the way you know Lincoln split rails and gave the Gettysburg Address. Haynes does count on you to bring to the theater information the film itself doesn't provide, but he's focused narrowly on the most familiar Dylan narrative: his rise, his radical break with his earnest folkie audience, his overdose of rock celebrity, his motorcycle accident and his subsequent retreat. In real life, all this happened between 1960 and 1967; Haynes transplants Dylan's later divorce and Christian conversion back into his fictional time frame. And it's the divorce that makes all the difference: the actor's breakup with his longtime lover (Charlotte Gainsbourg) gives the picture an aftertaste of loss and regret. When it was over, I couldn't move. Despite a couple of slow stretches—and Dylan has them, too—"I'm Not There" turns out to be worthy of its subject. This isn't faint praise. It's a full-on rave.