Singer Bob Dylan once famously asked in song, “How many roads must a man walk down, before you can call him a man?” Writer/director Todd Haynes attempts to answer that question by showing us six travelers on the various roads that make up facets of Dylan himself.
One of the first images we see in the film is a Dylan-esque figure on a mortuary slab, dead from a motorcycle accident. A scalpel makes the first incision of an autopsy, Haynes’ visual signal for the upcoming dissection of Dylan’s life. To do so he has splintered Dylan into various characters representing various aspects the artist’s personality at various points in his life.
Chronologically, the first Dylan avatar we meet is a young black boy (Marcus Carl Franklin who gives a performance far more mature than his young years would indicate) who identifies himself as “Woody” (as in “Guthrie”). Although it is 1959, Woody is schooled in the folk music of the Great Depression of two decades earlier, recreating the lifestyle of that era by hopping freight trains. Other incarnations include a young folk singer trying to catch a break in the Greenwich Village of the early 1960s (Christian Bale) and an actor playing the aforementioned singer in a biopic a decade later (Heath Ledger).
Perhaps the most interesting segments of the film cover the time immediately after Dylan “went electric,” much to the dismay of a majority of his fans who saw it as a betrayal. Haynes accurately depicts the impact of that performance with a quick shot of the Dylan character – here called Jude, short for Judas, naturally – and his band blasting machine guns out into the audience from onstage. Jude is traveling Europe, performing his new material to the disapproval of his fans and flirting about the edges of the pop culture he has supposedly sold out to. All the while he is dogged by a persistent British journalist who doubts the stories that Jude has been telling about his background. Portraying this version of Dylan is Cate Blanchett who manages to capture the singer in ways that are extraordinary, belying any fears that her inclusion in the film was anything more than a bit of stunt casting.
Haynes employs a variety of visual styles for each segment, reflecting the essence of the artist and his music at the various times being examined. The early 1960s folk scene of Greenwich Village is shot in grainy black and white, invoking a rejection of the more colorful palette of pop and mod culture of the time in addition to matching the look of the 1967 Dylan documentary Don’t Look Back. It amounts to what could be called impressionistic filmmaking, even if the effect somewhat feels like one is watching a film edited together from biopics from six alternate universes. Haynes intercuts each segment in a way that reinforces one another in various ways, with storylines often paralleling each other or providing ironic counterpoint to each other.
Unfortunately, the one segment that doesn’t seem to work is the one that projects Dylan as an older Billy The Kid, as personified by Richard Gere, who has survived his supposedly fatal gunfight with Pat Garrett to live a quiet life in a strange little town the celebrates Halloween all year round. Although beautifully shot with rich vibrant color, there are no strong links between it and the other segments, leaving it feeling strangely disassociated from the rest of the film.