“I’m glad I’m not me,” said Bob Dylan once, at the height of his fame and notoriety in the 70’s.
When you have such a pertinent disclaimer from the one man you believe would admit his mercurial brilliance, what else can you hope for? Surely not a bland, simple life spelled out for the world. Despite the hecklers’ shouts of ‘Judas’ that followed him during his live performances when he went ‘electric’, despite the derisive commentary by critics and cynics of the world, Dylan has kept the admirers and the haters both hanging on to every spastic twitch and jerk of his physical and musical form for over four decades, and still counting. Here’s a man declared an imposter and a saviour, an artist and a self-promoting, dime bag musician who employed the guise of social activist to sell his records. Here’s a man who isn’t accessible enough and a man who just sold his credibility by performing in China. Here’s the human conundrum, Bob Dylan.
When it comes to the history of modern western music and the great transitional artists in post-war America, one name that truly stands out is that of the gravel voiced Bob Dylan. You may not be a fan, but chances are at any given point in your life, you have heard, loved and lived one of his songs from his extensive discography. Your favourite musicians started out because they were influenced by him. His sphere of influence stretches to such limits that most of his contemporaries can and could only dream of; past tense because at 70 today, Bob Dylan has outlived many of his friends, peers, critics and lovers. Born Robert Allen Zimmerman who later embraced the name Bob Dylan and the many identities that came with it, he was a Minnesota lad with a love for jazz, blues, folk and a certain stirring way with his guitar. Dylan landed in New York in 1961 and grabbed at every gig that came his way. It was a time when the commercially driven music industry presented clean cut boy quintets and prime time pop idols with wildly uninhibited dance moves. Dylan, equipped with harmonica and his acoustic guitar, relentlessly worked his magic that involved nervous twitches instead of gyrating hips, and low cast eyes instead of a full on stare at the screaming fans. Surrounded by crowds of the self-aware in a time of rapid change, he finally got the recognition and the respect he deserved as a singer and songwriter with the ’63 release of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. Most of the songs on this record were embraced by the socially aware new generation that had revolution on its minds. These were the ‘protest songs’, the voice of millions of disillusioned youths in search of meaning and more intellectual stimulation than America was offering them. With his credibility as an artist now validated by a wide audience, Dylan started a musical journey that saw him gain fame and eventually notoriety for his ‘iconoclastic temperament’, socio-political activism, support of the Civil Rights movement, his eventually charismatic and untamed persona up on the stage and continuously evolving musical meanderings.
Since that time, he has lived many lives as a poet, a visionary, a holy conman, an artist, a dunce, an imposter, a legend, a genius, a refuter, an agitator, a drifter, a vagabond, a political activist, a husband, a father, a notorious celebrity shape-shifter and a vague idea. He continues to re-invent himself without notice or apology. With more than forty albums to his name, unending series of successful concerts around the globe (including a now-notoriuos performance in the forbidding China) and dozens of accolades, including multiple nominations for a Nobel Prize (1997 Nobel Prize in Literature, and again in 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001 and 2002), one still has to sit back and wonder how a man like him should be categorized when his own admissions to his celebrity are derisive and mocking. And while others wait and wonder, acclaimed director Todd Haynes has taken the brave plunge into dissecting the force-field that is Dylan in the not-quite-your-regular-biopic I’m Not There. The fact that his pet project has Dylan’s blessing as well is just fortunate for both the fan and filmmaker in Haynes.
I’m Not There is a non-linear and unconventional take on the many ‘lives and time’ of Bob Dylan; a biopic that masquerades as a fiction and never quite makes the bold assumption of detailing each and every facet of Dylan’s often difficult to understand life. What the viewer gets is a visual depiction of the persona behind the person, and an intelligent one as well. Dylan’s life is segmented into seven distinct phases, and he has been portrayed by six different actors, including Richard Gere as Billy the Kid, the ruined prophet; Christian Bale as Jack Rollins, the young folk singer with socio-politically awareness, later becoming ‘Pastor John’ who has his heart deep-rooted in traditional Gospel music; the devastatingly accurate Cate Blanchett as Jude Quinn, a genre defying androgynous rock star with nerves on the edge and a hostile fanbase; Ben Wishaw as the surrealist poetic figure; Heath Ledger as the emotionally drained divorced actor Robbie Clark whose claim to fame is portraying Jack Rollins in a film; and a black child of thirteen, Marcus Clark Franklin as Woody whose guitar case bears the legend ‘this machine kills fascists’, imitating the similarly labeled guitar of folk and blues singer Woody Guthrie, who is one of Dylan’s greatest influences.
So if cinematic semiotics are to be believed, one human being can be many people throughout the course of thier life. This holds true in most cases; some of the most interesting human beings who have made a mark on the world had a knack for being ten people within the span of a day. The beauty of it is they probably didn’t even realize the subtle shifts in the way they behaved, hence making it all the more interesting. And this same structural and behavioral shift has been applied to the character of Dylan in the film as well. To state that he has been one person too many throughout his career would be true, since it feels like greater than his whole mortal lifetime.
A legend to millions of his followers around the globe, Bob Dylan is everything and nothing, every man and no man at all. He is a myth and a moment that just doesn’t seem to pass. This juxtaposition of thematic ambiguity is the heart of Hayne’s film, where the stress is on via negativa, of getting the message across by going ‘the other way round’. By showing what Bob Dylan is not, Haynes shows us who Bob Dylan might be. By underplaying the essentially base celebrity of one of the most intriguing and mercurial artists of two (now three) generations, we get closer to the truth of what might be behind the twitchy façade of unending genius that Dylan has mastered through the decades, whether intentionally or unintentionally. In essence this is not a film. It is a fiction, a fragment, a fantasy; Todd Haynes’ fascination splashed out on celluloid for the world to see.
When watching the film, someone who is not a fan might wonder just who the hell is Bob Dylan out of all of these scattered depictions of his art, his life, his music, his family and his beliefs. The answer may be that he is just himself at the end of the day, whoever that is, with the weight of his own great mythology on his seemingly old shoulders. It might just work as an introduction for many to the music of the man who, while graciously having approved of Haynes’ ambitious project, still can only be understood through what he does best: closing his eyes, curling those gnarly fingers along the guitar strings and singing.
This is an update on a review of I’m Not There I did in 2008 for The Friday Times. Yes. I am being a lazy brat, but I love Bob Dylan, I just don’t have his prowess with words to say the same thing in dozens of new and unique ways. So. It is officially my recycled salute to one of my musical heroes.