Is Six Actors Enough to Show the Many Sides of Bob Dylan?

In a Hollywood with a reputation for liking things safe and bankable, a bizarrely cast film about the life of one of the most controversial singers of all time, opening in just four cinemas in all of America, would seem unlikely to be at the center of the biggest Oscar buzz of the year.

Yet I'm Not There -- a biopic about Bob Dylan being released in November -- is doing exactly that. There is nothing normal about the movie, which delves into the fascinating life of the singer-songwriter and promises to be one of the strangest films of the decade.

It boasts six actors playing Dylan, including a woman and a black boy, so its opening marketing campaign was hardly likely to be conventional. But by any standards, opening in only four cinemas is remarkable. Usually that means that a studio thinks its movie might be a disaster, yet I'm Not There has generated nothing but good news.

Industry figures have been surprised by the move. 'It depends on the film. Sometimes you just start small and build on word of mouth,' said Karen Cooper, director of Manhattan's acclaimed arts cinema Film Forum, which is one of two New York cinemas that will screen the film. The other two are in Los Angeles.

The film is backed by the Weinstein Company, whose founder, Harvey Weinstein, has not been shy of touting the work, despite planning its slow release. He has admitted wanting to generate a slow burn of reaction before taking the film national.

"I'm going to play every major city in the United States with this movie," he said last week. "I'll play 100 cities at least."

It is a tactic that has worked before. When Weinstein opened Good Will Hunting he put it in just seven cinemas. That film went on to make Matt Damon and Ben Affleck famous and clocked up $140 million at the box office. It seems something similar is being tried with I'm Not There. Certainly those few who have seen the film praise its quality.

"It leaps off the screen. The director has created something here that is just so unusual," said Cooper.

Director Todd Haynes has come up with one of the most surreal biopics of a musician ever. Though the genre has had huge success recently -- with movies such as Ray and Walk the Line -- this film is on a wholly different plane.

Instead of telling the straight story of Dylan's life, Haynes has opted to split the movie into separate chunks, each one dealing symbolically with a stage of Dylan's career. In each bit of the film Dylan is played by a character who represents what he stands for rather than an actual human being.

Which is why the greatest buzz around the project centres on Dylan's portrayal by Australian actress Cate Blanchett.

"Blanchett's performance as the mid-Sixties Dylan is amazing," said Cooper. Weinstein agrees: "If Cate Blanchett doesn't get nominated [for an Oscar] I'll shoot myself."

But Blanchett, looking eerily like Dylan, shares the role with other A-listers. Richard Gere plays the Seventies Dylan as a cowboy; Christian Bale plays him as he emerges into fame in the early Sixties; Australian actor Heath Ledger plays him as his music took an overtly Christian turn; British actor Ben Whishaw plays a Dylan fused with the 19th-century poet Arthur Rimbaud. The unknown Dylan who arrived in New York in 1961 is played by Marcus Carl Franklin, a black child actor.

"If they pull it off, then I think it will work. It seems a unique way of looking at him, and that is suitable because he is a unique artist," said Caroline Schwarz, co-director of the Bob Dylan Fan Club. Though Dylan himself gave the film his blessing, he had no input in it. Perhaps he thought that having six actors playing him was enough.

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