The year is 1966, and someone who looks a lot like Bob Dylan is holding court at Club Silver, a swinging nightspot with a stark, all-white décor. His hair is an overgrown bush of brown curls; he’s wearing Ray-Bans and a polka-dot shirt. And when he speaks, the nasal cadences are unmistakable, even if the voice sounds a little higher than it should: “It takes a lot of medicine to keep up this pace,”he says, gesturing with a cigarette.
Underneath the shades and wig is Australian actress Cate Blanchett, who spends an hour each morning in a makeup chair to undergo the most extreme transformation of her career. She’s playing the just-gone-electric, Highway 61 Revisited-era Dylan in I’m Not There, an unconventional biopic by Far From Heaven director Todd Haynes, whose previous music movie was the 1998 glam tribute Velvet Goldmine. Haynes named the movie, due next year, after the Basement Tapes rarity “I’m Not There” (which will see its first official release on the soundtrack). “It’s so perfect for this person who keeps moving forward and discarding who he was,” Haynes says. “The minute he seems in grasp, he’s not there anymore.”
Blanchett is just one of six Dylans in the film, which splits him into separate characters, each representing a different part of his life or legend. Christian Bale plays the young folkie Dylan, who is later seen again as a fiery born-again Christian; Richard Gere embodies a mythical Dylan in the Old West; and Heath Ledger is a movie-star Bob. Two newcomers round out the Dylans: Twelve-year-old Marcus Carl Franklin plays a fantasy version of him as an (African-American) child and British stage actor Ben Whishaw plays him as a teen.
In the scene-in-progress on the Club Silver set – inside a grimy factory turned studio in a Montreal suburb –Blanchett’s Jude (each Dylan has a different name) encounters Michelle Williams, playing a character based on Sixties It girl Edie Sedgwick, with whom Dylan reputedly had a brief affair. After watching her kiss another man, Jude mocks the couple: “True love,” he drawls. “In the age of Charles Atlas and the bomb!” (Dylan fanatics will find some of the dialogue familiar: The “medicine” line is straight from a 1966 interview with biographer Robert Shelton.)
For Haynes, dividing Dylan into multiple characters was the only way to tell his story. “I’m very interested in artists like David Bowie who play with notions of identity,” Haynes says. “I hadn’t thought of Dylan exactly in that way until I started to really read about the events of his life more closely. And Dylan’s changes – which maybe look more subtle than someone like Bowie’s – were much more powerful and had huge cultural repercussions.”
The innovative approach helped persuade Dylan and his management to authorize the film. “I don’t think Bob Dylan would have allowed anyone to do a regular biopic,” says producer Christine Vachon. Having a woman portray the dandified Dylan of the mid-Sixties, Haynes says, is meant to capture the “strange androgyny” of that persona. Blanchett’s performance made an immediate impression, according to veteran character actor Bruce Greenwood, who plays Jude’s nemesis, Mr. Jones – a square journalist straight out of “Ballad of a Thin Man.” “The body language just had me stunned with how evocative it was of Dylan at that time,” he says. “And the crew was standing around with their hands on their mouths.”
Haynes will use a distinct visual style for each section of the film (the Jude segment is black-and-white), but he says the movie won’t feel like a collection of short films. “Each story reaches a point at which the person can’t go on without becoming something else,” he says. “It solves the problems of the prior story to change into a new thing and discard it.”
Along the way, a number of familiar characters pop up: Charlotte Gainsbourg plays a Sara Dylan-like wife; David Cross will play a character based on Allen Ginsberg; and Julianne Moore is a Joan Baez-inspired character.
The movie’s soundtrack is still taking shape, but it will mix Dylan’s own recordings with new covers. My Morning Jacket‘s Jim James has already recorded “Going to Acapulco” for the movie, and ex-Pavement frontman Stephen Malkmus sang “Ballad of a Thin Man” and “Maggie’s Farm” backed by a band that includes current Dylan bassist Tony Garnier. Malkmus’ performances, recorded in sessions produced by Sonic Youth‘s Lee Ranaldo, will score the segment based on Dylan’s 1965 Newport Folk Festival set.
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Ultimately, I’m Not There will be a meditation on the 1960s, a decade Haynes feels still hasn’t been captured correctly on film. “It was such an incredibly complex and fascinating period,” he says. “I want it to be the best film about the Sixties anyone has ever seen.”
This story is from the October 19, 2006 issue of Rolling Stone.