Six degrees of Dylan – Director Todd Haynes explains his flick about the singer

THE PREMISE of using multiple actors of different sexes, ages and even races to portray one character seems, on the surface, an absurd stunt.But when the subject is the legendary shape-shifter Bob Dylan, and the director/co-writer of “I’m Not There” is Todd Haynes, this cockeyed concept proves both oddly doable and the logical best way to encapsulate a guy who’s never stood still, who’s never been easy to stuff into a bottle.

“This is a film about a guy who radically transforms himself and inhabits these different selves and makes his music through these guises,” Haynes shared during a recent visit to town.

The only one of six Dylans seen on the screen with whom this longtime fan couldn’t connect overtly was the movie-star persona (played by Heath Ledger) who also represents Dylan the semi-connected family man. The real Bob D. has appeared in only a handful of films, mostly self-produced vanity projects, and has never gotten good reviews. Still, Haynes argued that he is “the consummate actor who commits himself to the performance he is giving in the moment.

“If you see him in the Martin Scorsese documentary, or in Murray Lerner’s film of performances at the Newport Folk Festival, you see the different roles and the consummate commitment to each one and such radical changes in such a short span of time. So I was taking the idea of the actor and expanding on it.

“And it’s also true that he had the status of counterculture actor/legend. He was really the James Dean of the late ’60s and early ’70s.”

No stranger to taking the twisted road with a musical subject, Haynes built an underground, cultish rep with his short film “Superstar,” which used Barbie dolls as actors to tell the tale of the equally rail-thin, anorexic singer Karen Carpenter. (Made without approval by the Carpenter family/estate, or Barbie trademark holder Mattel, the film was legally quashed after two years of play on the alt-cinema circuit.)

Another Haynes film that you can and should seek out on DVD is “Velvet Goldmine,” a highly sensual, trippy and musically spot-on appraisal of the glammy glitter-rock era of David Bowie, Marc Bolan, the Rolling Stones and that ilk, though all the inspirations in that flick are semi-disguised.

For “I’m Not There,” originally subtitled “Suppositions on a Film Concerning Dylan,” Haynes first approached the singer’s eldest son, Jesse, who bought into the idea of a multicharacter, impressionistic study and hooked the director up with Dylan’s business manager Jeff Rosen. He then obtained a “go-ahead” from the man himself.

While Dylan clearly likes his privacy, Haynes said the only caveat presented to him was “they didn’t want a big emphasis on drugs in the film. Drugs are in the movie and I told Jeff it was there, but not in a tell-all, ‘what did Dylan take when and how’ kind of way. My motivation was to to explain that Dylan kind of represented drug use.

“He understood a counter-consciousness to his times, and while it’s debatable if you had to take a drug to understand his words, his music was like taking a drug at a certain point. And this movie is like a trip. That’s what I wanted to express, a different way of reading the world.”

The movie’s first mind-blower is meeting the young child tramp folk singer (played by Marcus Carl Franklin) who’s renamed himself “Woody” (as in Guthrie), and is so charming that no one even notices he’s black and a total fibber (just as no one challenged “Dylan” for really being a middle-class Jew named Zimmerman).

Also woven into the tapestry is the protest singer (Christian Bale) who later becomes an equally convincing “born-again” Christian-music crusader – both phases in which Dylan was way ahead of the curve. (The latter stage was actually the era when Haynes, now 46, first started paying attention to Dylan.)

Then there’s the old-time Wild West coot (played by Richard Gere) who’s getting pushed out of the way because the industrial age is coming through. He’s meant to represent all the country/roots phases of Dylan’s artistic life – from his basement work at “Big Pink” with the Band to recent sleepy Southern-style ruminations on life.

“With the Gere story, I tried to encompass everything that is not the urban contemporary Dylan,” said Haynes. “And that’s a tall order because the lay person doesn’t even know Dylan did country music or was interested in roots music at all. But the rural traditions have been paramount in his life and he’s continued to go back to that music for sustenance and inspiration.

“So I decided this thread of the movie should be a western, because he did dig country records and it grated against the counterculture when he came out with ‘Nashville Skyline’ in ’68. Then, three years later – what happens? The whole singer-songwriter era of James Taylor and Jackson Browne and Graham Parsons, where country and the youth culture intersected. And who started that? Dylan, once again.”

Of course, the most controversial phase of Dylan’s life kicked in like a machine-gun blast to the head in 1965, when he morphed from protest and introspective acoustic strummer to a wired-up, electric rocking surrealist at Newport (disguised on screen as the New England Jazz and Folk Festival).

Then he took this crazy carnival ride to England, for better and worse, where he freaked out some fans and got freaky with others, and was challenged by the head-scratching media (personified by a journalist named Mr. Jones) for his seeming corruption and dishonesty.

Visually, Haynes modeled this portion of the film after Federico Fellini’s hallucinogenic masterpiece “8 1/2” – similarly about an artist under fire from the media. And Cate Blanchett plays this edgy Dylan with equally shocking success as an ambisexual, drugged-out, mind games-playing hedonist.

“I feel something for each of the Dylans, but if I had to pick a favorite, the ‘Blonde On Blonde’ [album] period and the character of Jude Quinn that Cate plays is probably where I’ve put the most emphasis,” Haynes said.

“The music that came out of that time is still the most amazing and resilient and endlessly complex and beautiful of anything he’s done. And Cate’s performance is so remarkable. She goes so far beyond the surface, beyond the shock value. You’re instantly inside the character and interested in what they’re saying.

“And that ambisexual whatever is really closely modeled on what Dylan was like in 1966, which was not traditionally masculine in any shape or sense . . . that all of a sudden was completely unattainable and strange and spidery. This was years before Bowie, even before Tiny Tim. It must have been a

real freaker for people.”

True devotees of Dylan will relish the many images, quotes and incidents that reflect Haynes’ encyclopedic study of the man. “Almost every molecular component of the film comes from something in the Dylan universe,” the director/writer said.

“But the reaction I’ve gotten from viewers is that you don’t have to ‘get it’ to appreciate the film. And I’m glad, because I don’t think the film could rest on that, could survive on just the obsessed Dylanologists.” *

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