"I'm Not There" isn't a Bob Dylan biography. It's a fantasia on the many guises of this folk-rock shaman, changeling, hustler and icon. But as such, it plumbs this pop changeling's psyche as no mere biography could. Todd Haynes' endlessly over-inventive film dons its Dylans the way the former Robert Zimmerman has donned his many disguises — with insolence, insouciance and a cryptic wink at a world ready to be put on.
Half a dozen actors play Dylan at various points in his life, not one going by the name "Bob Dylan." Cate Blanchett is a '60s rebel biker, turning his (her) back on folk and protest music, plugging in, hopping on a motorcycle and crashing.
It's one of the conceits of Haynes' film that he takes each Dylan through to some sort of logical conclusion in his life. That Dylan would have become a James Dean cult figure, dying young and forever beautiful.
Christian Bale is the rising star of the folk scene, the one who used Joan Baez, given another name here and played by Julianne Moore in one of the many "interviews" in the film.
Tiny Marcus Carl Franklin is the youngest Dylan, adorably engaging, hopping freight trains, regaling hobos (at age 11) with tales of life on the rails as folk singer Woody Guthrie. It's not lying. It's self-invention.
Ben Whishaw is the young poet, passing himself off as Rimbaud to an inquisition of academics and intellectuals.
Heath Ledger is the matinee idol Dylan who might have pursued a movie career.
And Richard Gere is the "Billy the Kid" Dylan once played on the screen, a recluse hiding in plain sight, leaving behind a world that changed around him.
Haynes and co-writer Oren Moverman build the script around Dylan's own words, from testy, challenging interviews, and the too-revealing documentary "Don't Look Back" (a confrontational British concert tour, filmed and re-created with Blanchett in black-and-white).
"I didn't come out of a cereal box," the post-Elvis, pre-Beatles Vietnam War icon says.
Do you have a message? A cranky British journalist demands.
You have to know at least some of the story to figure out who the players are and which setting we're in. But Haynes isn't going for the literal here, not for a minute. This is an impressionistic comic book of Dylan's life, his flings, first marriage, Pentecostal conversion and cultivated air of mystery.
The one man to maybe unmask him, the "Pat Garrett" who trapped this "Billy the Kid"? That would be the British journalist who got his goat during that "Don't Look Back" tour, played here by Bruce Greenwood. He also turns up as Pat Garrett, famous lawman and captor of Billy the Kid.
It doesn't all work and it runs too long. But every fragment of Dylan's life, every version of him, from the funny to the tippy, rings true.
And if the real Dylan can boast "I'm not there" at the end of "I'm Not There," maybe that's because we've never been able to figure him out while he was "here." It's only later, after he's moved on, that any of his myriad guises seems like the put-on it is.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times