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Six Bob Dylans on DVD: Who Takes the Prize in "I'm Not There"?

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Even if today's DVD releases were major — they're not unless watching Paris Hilton struggle to look alive in The Hottie & the Nottie strikes you as the ultimate symbol of creative striving — the pick of the week would still be the Two-Disc Special Edition of I'm Not There. Look, I know you didn't see this visionary work from director Todd Haynes in theaters. Just consider the film's paltry $3,728,430 gross (Iron Man made more than that in it's first five minutes at the box office). So it's time to grab this DVD — splendiferous in sound and image — and let it work you over. Haynes puts the music and the myth of Bob Dylan before us and, get this, never once mentions the name of the mesmeric changeling at his film's center. There's no need: Cover versions of Dylan songs occupy the movie like angels and demons doing battle at an exorcism. Not content with just one actor to portray Dylan in the act of inventing himself, Haynes hired six and hit the mega-jackpot with

Cate Blanchett, who burns through Haynes' head-trip odyssey like an illuminating torch. Blanchett's Oscar nominated performance (how she lost to Tilda Swinton in Michael Clayton will remain an enduring Academy mystery) is some kind of miracle. Playing the skinny, androgynous Dylan in his electric years — when his hair stood on end to match his fried nerves — Blanchett extends the possibilities of acting. Her toking, doping Dylan, named Jude, trades insights with gay poet Allen Ginsberg (David Cross), hits on an Edie Sedgwick-like socialite (Michelle Williams), rages against a prying journalist (Bruce Greenwood) and (surreal alert!) imagines gunning down the folkies at Newport '65 who booed when Dylan traded acoustic for electric. Even behind shades, Blanchett lets us in close to the trapped escape artist rattling his cage.

The downside of all the focus on Blanchett is the lack of attention to the film's other Dylans. The DVD helps us right the balance. Up first is the remarkable Marcus Carl Franklin, 14, Haynes' inspired choice to portray Dylan as a vagabond black boy named Woody (an hommage to Woody Guthrie). Then there's British actor Ben Whishaw, dandied up as Arthur in tribute to Dylan's admiration for the French symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud. The reliably superb Christian Bale gets to manifest two sides of the master, as folk prophet Jack and later the Christian convert Pastor John, revving up the congregation with "Pressing On." The most problematic Dylan in terms of style shock, is Richard Gere as Billy, not just the outlaw Dylan played in Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid but the Dylan who went into exile in Woodstock, New York, after his 1966 motorcycle crash. The Gere sequence, opulently produced and featuring an irresistible rendering of "Goin' to Acapulco" by Jim James, may throw audiences off. But the Fellini-esque circus atmosphere is exactly where the film has been heading all along.

Still, the Dylan you'll want to reward with special attention belongs to Heath Ledger, who died less than two months after I'm Not There debuted in theaters. Ledger digs deep into the challenging role of Robbie, an actor who plays Dylan in a movie and whose relationship to the painter Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) mirrors Dylan's marriage to and divorce from Sarah Lownds. The DVD features a fitting tribute to Ledger that adds to the film's poignance regarding the pressures of celebrity.

The other bonus features are hit and miss. The deleted and extended scenes don't add much to the party, and the red-carpet premiere and on-set bloopers are Access Hollywood-style blather. But Haynes offers incisive audio commentary, we get to see Whishaw and Franklin audition, and you have to love the feature that accesses Dylan's lyrics as subtitles as the music is played.

Still, the kick of watching this DVD multiple times, aside from the power of the music and the images, is rating the actors playing Dylan. Blanchett takes pride of place in my book, followed by Ledger. What's your take?

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Peter Travers

Rolling Stone senior writer Peter Travers has reviewed movies for the magazine for more than 20 years. Send your comments and questions to him here.

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