Adapting the life and talent of Bob Dylan to the biopic genre was an inevitability. It is hard to see how anyone could stop it from happening. For all the failed markups of The Beatles, The Beach Boys and the big names around the 1960s, pulling off a dissection of The Voice of a Generation is no small feat. I’m Not There plays with the format of traditional detailing. Dylan defines a meaning or passage of time for so many people, spread across generations. To adapt that correctly, no one man can portray Dylan, and that is what director Todd Haynes gets right with I’m Not There. As Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again plays through the opening credits and the passages of time cross the screen, I’m Not There springs to life.
At its heart, there is the understanding of who Dylan was, or at the very least, what he could have been. Had the motorcycle crash gone worse, had the man been from a different background. He is still the Voice of a Generation, but which generation? Six actors take their turn to provide some detail or style to the different phases of a varied career. Marcus Carl Franklin has the toughest job of all because he is the guiding torch through the early years of the artist. He does a phenomenal job. The influences of Dylan and the early memories of his life are dispersed with the mystifying expectations of such a figure. Ben Whishaw does well around these moments also, but the reliance on Dylan’s work for the soundtrack is the defiant aspect of these early moments.
Christian Bale settles in well to the Times They Are A’Changin… generation. Aided well by Julianne Moore with the piece to camera, documentary-style adapted here, Haynes manages to get his head around several genre stylings with natural progression. How loosely and freely he changes between Bale, Heath Ledger and the other generations of Dylan is fascinating. It is a plan that, when in motion, should be disastrous. What helps is the timeless entity at the heart of it. The comparisons between Alice (Moore) and Joan Baez are rather obvious. But they are meant to be. To adapt Dylan’s life without the crutch of fiction is an impossibility. Necessary that desire to showcase the man at the heart of it all may be, there is an understanding from Haynes that getting personal is not possible. His public persona is enough because of how broad it is, but finding the emotive, true layer is neither necessary nor possible.
But that doesn’t matter. I’m Not There may not have the man himself present, but that is the point. Dylan is unknowable. Good. Should his fans wish to get inside his head, I’m Not There is their best bet. The closest they will come to ever understanding Robert Allen Zimmerman, and even then, Haynes does his best to confuse his audience. He succeeds. At what cost, though? For all the great and obvious choices made throughout in identifying an actor with a generation of the singer, I’m Not There wobbles from time to time. Its exposition is necessary but longwinded, and there are parts that even the most diehard of Dylan fans will struggle to overcome. Not because the detail isn’t there, but because the style is so unique.