Bio rolls Dylan's personas into one

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 March, 2008, 12:00am


It's always been difficult to pin Bob Dylan down. That's because the legendary musician has continuously evolved his sound, from the pure folk of his early years, to the notorious electric rock of the mid-60s, to the country drawl of 1969's Nashville Skyline, to his recent jazz-inflected album Modern Times.

And Dylan's desire to keep reinventing himself has made it difficult for filmmakers to make a biopic of his life. Screenwriters and directors have always been stumped by the same question: just who exactly is Bob Dylan?

Todd Haynes, the American independent filmmaker best known for his lush reinvention of melodrama in the teary Far From Heaven, found an answer he could work with. Dylan, he observed, was a lot of different personas all rolled into one. So why not simply show that on the screen? Haynes constructed a screenplay which features six different representations of Bob Dylan.

One's a young black folk singer, hitching rides in boxcars and quoting folk hero Woody Guthrie. Another's the classic Dylan of D.A. Pennebaker's 1967 documentary, Don't Look Back. Yet another is a cowboy, referencing Dylan's acting role in Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, as well as his flirtation with country music and his love for popular folk heroes.

Haynes invented six Dylans, and had them played by six actors. The result, I'm Not There, is easily the most innovative American film of 2007.

The film is a somewhat different examination of the Dylan phenomenon to Martin Scorsese's recent documentary, No Direction Home. Haynes and collaborator/cinematographer Ed Lachman dispense with historical readings in favour of impressionism. Each version of Dylan explores a different side of the musical great's personality. Cate Blanchett, for instance, plays Dylan at the height of his fame in 1965, a paranoid character intent on refuting his reputation as spokesperson for a generation, and defending his right to change his musical style. Some incidents are true, some exaggerated, and some false.

'Todd's idea sprang from the question, how do you approach a subject like Bob Dylan?' says Lachman. 'Dylan was always a permutation. He always rejected what he was in order to move on, to change creatively. He took on different personas in order to create new work, to keep evolving. Most biopics about subjects like this tend to look at how the private life suffers because of the public life.

'But Todd wasn't interested in that - he was only interested in Dylan's creative life. The film doesn't use a lot of gossipy stories and anecdotes to try to show how his fame influenced his private life. Instead, it tries to illustrate Dylan's creative process. It's the plight of an artist to have to create, and for me, this film is about how he does it.'

The idea, Lachman says, was to make a film in a style which mirrored Dylan's music. 'As the cinematographer, I always felt that it would be an impossibility to create images from a Dylan song. I always felt that Dylan's music created the images and language itself - his music and words were the images, and that was that.

'What Todd was able to do was invert that idea. He took the rhythms of music and the free associations that you're allowed in music, and reinterpreted them as cinema. That's what I find fascinating. Dylan's been a filmmaker himself over the years, and I think he attempted to interpret his music in a cinematic way himself.

'He succeeded to a lesser extent with Renata and Clara. But he never quite got there with it - it never quite worked. But I think that Todd got there,' Lachman says.

This film is obviously not a straightforward representation of Dylan's life, the cinematographer says. What's more, he thinks it reveals more about its subject than a straightforward documentary could have done. 'It reaches them better than if they just see a documentary, because people often feel manipulated by documentaries,' Lachman says.

'The trouble with most bio pictures is that audiences think they know the subject already. The films fail because people don't believe the representation or interpretation of the character. They have their own personal opinion of how he or she should be, and what they see doesn't fit. But they can't feel that way about I'm Not There. Viewers have to deal with an abstraction of Dylan made up of different characters. They have to make up their own minds about what it all represents.'

Lachman says that Haynes wanted each thread of Dylan's life to reflect a different cinematic style.

Lachman says he enjoyed the process as it enabled him to watch some favourite films to gain inspiration.

These films, he points out, aren't necessarily the obvious choices. 'We decided that the storyline featuring Heath Ledger - the Robby and Clara section - should look very Godardian, as it was about sexual politics. Our direct reference was Jean-Luc Godard's Masculin, Feminin. We went through that and examined the cinematic language behind it.'

Fellini's 8? was the model for Blanchett's scenes, as the theme - that of a film star looking inward to avoid the glare of his fans and the media - reflected what Dylan was going through. The old west parts, starring Richard Gere, are modelled on revisionist westerns such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Films reflect the times they are made, and those old enough will subconsciously pick up on the different cinema styles and understand how they relate to Dylan during each period of his life, says Lachman. 'People's views of history are filtered through cinema. But young people will see this film and think everything is totally new,' he adds. 'They'll have to work out what [the images represent] for themselves.'

They will, however, get a good idea of the many personalities that come together to make up the mercurial Dylan.

I'm Not There screens on Thurs (at the Convention and Exhibition Centre) and Apr 4 (at the Arts Centre) as part of the Hong Kong International Film Festival