Woody Guthrie wannabe, folkie protest singer, enigmatic rocker, country boy, born-again gospel wailer, balladeer, recluse, giver of weird interviews - the man who sang "The Times They Are A-Changing" has changed himself more times than a one-man Shakespeare troupe.
And so, Haynes' I'm Not There metamorphoses in much the same way, with six actors portraying respective Dylans, or Dylan alter egos (and a different filmmaking style for each): Marcus Carl Franklin as "Woody," an 11-year-old, guitar-toting - and African American - Dylan, riding the rails, and yelping the blues; Ben Whishaw as "Arthur Rimbaud," who spends most of his time at an interrogation table (a Vietnam-era draft hearing? a tribunal of the gods?), answering queries and offering trippy, tricky retorts; Cate Blanchett as "Jude Quinn," the electric Dylan with the wild hair and mod polka-dots who hobnobbed with the Beatles and dazzled and disgusted British fans in 1965; Christian Bale as "Jack Rollins," the folksinger/protest-marcher Dylan who turns into an evangelical preacher; Heath Ledger as Robbie, a movie actor who comes to fame portraying Jack Rollins onscreen, and represents Dylan at the height of his '70s celebrityhood; and Richard Gere as a cowpoke incarnation, an aged Billy the Kid, standing in for the Dylan who cloaked himself (and his songs) in Western lore.
Got all that?
It's a lot to get, mixed with images that borrow from Fellini, Godard, Disney (the dreamy underwater ingestion of "Woody" by a whale is straight from Pinocchio), overlaid with quotes from Dylan, and made-up Dylanesque quotes from Haynes. And, of course, the songs, which are no less amazing for the new contexts they've been placed in.
And then there's the parade of girlfriends and wives (Charlotte Gainsbourg, a Baez-y Julianne Moore, Michelle Williams); the journos (a very British Bruce Greenwood); and the poets (David Cross as Allen Ginsberg) and hangers-on.
I'm Not There is the opposite of a literal, time-lined biography. The movie is subjective, impressionistic, irreverent and worshipful. There will be Dylanophiles who'll freak, others who will relish. (That said, moviegoers who don't have much knowledge of, or affection for, Dylan, are advised to steer clear.)
Some of the performances work brilliantly - Blanchett (another Oscar nom?), the kid Franklin, Ledger, all great. Gere, with his suspenders and his dog, his horse and hat, is a mite trying. But so was Dylan when he had that Woodstock hillbilly affect, the scruffy, snaggle-toothed, old-timey guy.
Hugely ambitious and deeply personal, I'm Not There is at once experimental and mainstream: Haynes juggles the facts, plays fast and loose, but serves up images, and songs that are as much a part of the collective pop consciousness as anything the 20th century produced.
On top of all that, the thing's just plain beautiful, and fun.
Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or email@example.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://go.philly.com/onmovies.