Bob Dylan is an enigma. A poet, a musician, a philosopher and a sometime rock star, his life and the music he has produced is varied, colourful and ever changing.And so it was almost inevitable that when director Todd Haynes set out to make a suitably fitting biopic of Dylan's life, he chose to tell the story through seven fictional characters, each with some semblance of Dylan and his influences.And so we have 'I'm Not There', a film which follows these multiple incarnations of the 'The Times They are a-Changin' singer back and forth across the pastiche of incarnations and images that have become his life.But to make this film, and gain the rights to Dylan's music to use in the soundtrack, Hayne's first needed the blessing of the man himself. He became inspired to make the film after reading Dylan's recently published memoirs, 'Chronicles: Volume I', and knew he needed to win the musician's approval to get the rights to use his music.Dylan's management advised Haynes to write his proposal on a single sheet of paper, and not to resort to the old clichés of calling him a "genius" or "the voice of a generation" as Dylan loathes those labels.The 'Velvet Goldmine' director knew he wanted multiple characters to represent the different eras of Dylan's life and that he wanted a woman to play him in his rebel 'Blonde on Blonde' incarnation, but he was astounded at how easy it was to get the green light.Haynes said: "It was remarkably easy, I almost didn't believe it to be true. It was a conceptual film. It was the concept that was described to him, by me, on this one sheet of paper, very minimally, and that's all it took to get the permission. So it must have been the concept that intrigued him and made him want to do something with it."
And so with Dylan's approval Haynes was free to begin turning his idea into a film script which did justice to Dylan's life and his music.
He said: "My main challenge was the fact I was working in a visual medium and I wanted to find visual equivalent to Dylan's music and the different places that he occupied.
"So I turned to the cinema of the 60s as my palate to draw from, and from that there was a huge diversity of films and styles that people were exploring, so it was really just a matter of finding the best ones for each of the stories."
The seven different stories which make up 'I'm Not There' run both consecutively and in parallel and are made up of fact, fiction and Dylan's songs.
There is young Woody, a drifter and a lover of folk music with a remarkable talent, played by Marcus Carl Franklin, who represents Dylan at the beginning of his musical career. His embodies Dylan's love of the blues, his admiration for Woody Guthrie but also his first ever desire to become somebody else, to transform his image.
Jack Rollins, played by Christian Bale, represents Dylan in his folk music period, when his career was just beginning to take off as he captured the nation with protest songs such as 'Blowin' in the Wind'.
Rollins' story is told through a documentary to maintain an air of mystery around this period of his life.
Later in the film, Bale also plays Pastor John who represents Dylan's conversion to Christianity.
'Perfume' star Ben Wishaw plays Arthur, a poet on trial, who responds to questioning with some of Dylan's most famous, seemingly evasive but ironic comments he gave in press interviews during the mid 60s. He is a manifestation of the Dylan of 1964 with his bizarre humour and poetic imagery. The character is also a nod to the singer's admiration of Arthur Rimbaud.
Jude, played incredibly by Cate Blanchett, is the iconic image of Dylan which most people still call to mind today. Entering his electric phase Jude is high on drugs and represents a time when Dylan shocked people with his first dramatic reinvention.
Haynes wanted a woman for the part to reignite the shock and eerie strangeness people felt when first confronted with this new Dylan. And Blanchett had no problem delivering what was required of her.
Haynes said: "It was pretty clear to Cate what I wanted from her when we first talked. I brought her a book of images of Dylan from the time when she was playing and I think she saw what I was seeing in those images. She could see that even more so in footage of his gestures and his movements from this particular time. It's quite remarkable when you're really looking at it and imagining how shocking it must have been for people at the time."
Blanchett is already tipped for an Oscar for her fascinating manifestation of the musician, and her image is by far the strongest in the film.
Heath Ledger plays Robbie, a film star who has played folk musician Jack Rollins in a film of his life. His character represents Dylan's personal life, as a lover and a father, and centres around Robbie's relationship with his artist wife, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, and their daughters.
The final incarnation of Dylan in the film is Billy the Kid, played by Richard Gere. An old man in hiding from the modern world, he is closest to the Dylan we know today. But Gere's character is forced out of exile and back into the world at large, with the implication that he is about to reinvent himself once again, just as Dylan has with his latest album 'Modern Times' and his current radio show.
The film's format really does represent Dylan's ever evolving career in the best possible way, and Haynes doesn't dwell on any one character in an concerted effort not to show favouritism to one particular manifestation of the singer-songwriter.
He said: "I don't feel there is a true Dylan, I really believe in this idea of self invention and regeneration that marks his career.
"I think it's a uniquely American instinct that he has just played out more uniquely and more thoroughly than any other American artist, somewhat due to the pressure that he had to operate under. And he had to do a lot more work to keep clearing the deck and starting over and staying creatively excited about his own process.
"That's a lot harder for somebody that is famous than it is for most artists out there but I think it reveals a process that makes it more intense and more clear and actually reflects back on our culture."
The film is a fitting tribute to the man who hates being referred to as "the voice of a generation" but it does not go out of its way to pay homage to him.
However, it has not gone down well with all Dylan fans and was even booed by some members of the audience at The London Film Festival screening of the movie. Ironically this paralleled the film itself in which Blanchett's character is booed for going electric, but refuses to bow to pressure from his folk fans.
Despite its surreal composite, the film paints a very real picture, set to a soundtrack of Dylan's music, some performed by musician himself, and some by other artists.
Usually a soundtrack compliments a film's narrative, but in 'I'm Not There' it is very much the basis of the entire story.
Haynes said: "The soundtrack was there from the beginning, with some very minor exceptions.
"They were the foundation of the storytelling, they weren't just laid on top of the stories, they really helped direct it and define it. But deciding which songs to exclude and which songs to include was often a terrible joy.
"And it wasn't always my favourite Dylan songs, it was which one would do the job properly and get to the core of each story being told.
"I didn't feel, as a rule, I had to include all the hits. There are some very well known songs in the film, and some very well known songs not in the film and so for one reason or another you can't possibly fit them all into the film.
"But I also felt it was a cool opportunity to rediscover and reinvent some of the lesser known songs and make something unique out of them, and this gave more of a role for younger newer artists to interpret the songs and keep that musical history alive."
While you don't need to know anything about Dylan to watch this film, its abstract format, its clever references, and its roots in 60s art house cinema do not make it easy viewing.
This is not the sort of movie that you can rock up to the cinema for on a whim on a Saturday evening and munch popcorn in front of. And while there are no shortage of Dylan fans who will certainly flock to watch this film, it may not enjoy the same success of recent biopics about other successful musicians, such as 'Walk the Line' about Johnny Cash.
There is no simple storyline of human relationships for the masses to enjoy as they tap their toes to the music. This is a film designed to impress Dylan and his admirers, although Haynes begs to differ.
The director said: "I hope it appeals to people who aren't Dylan fans, I am most interested in those people's reactions.
"I didn't want it to be exclusive to Dylan fans, even though there is going to be a whole world of details and references that only Dylan fans will get, and there's tons of those in this film.
"The film couldn't possibly rely on that kind of comprehension it had to have a bigger life, like a Dylan song, where I don't get all the references, but there is room for poetry, there is room for abstraction and still enjoyment."
The film is certainly a work of art. It calls to mind Dylan songs that aren't even in the film, it captures the imagination and it draws its audience in, if they are willing to submit themselves. It may not attract those who don't already appreciate Dylan, but it doesn't need to. And the eccentric musician would not have given the go ahead to a cheesy blockbuster of his life.
After giving his permission, Dylan withdrew from the project and allowed Haynes free reign, with his manager Jeff Rosen overseeing things.
But thanks to his colourful memoirs and his powerful music Haynes has been able to capture his essence and make it visual.
It may be called 'I'm Not There', but Dylan is present in every frame of this film, and it deserves all the high praise and Oscar whisperings it has already received.
By Albertina Lloyd
Tagged in Bob Dylan