Dylan: A Riddle Wrapped in a Musician

Dylan has famously said he's no poet, but new film affirms his marketing skills.

ByABC News
February 12, 2009, 9:29 AM

Nov. 21, 2007 — -- At 66, Bob Dylan may still be the most influential musician of his time -- an enduring cultural icon and lyricist who provided the soundtrack for a generation of baby boomers and beyond.

His misunderstood and oft-maligned personality is back on the silver screen with the release of the avant-garde film "I'm Not There," a reference to Dylan's dark, 1967 bootleg recording.

Dylan has spent an entire career refusing to be pigeonholed. Enigmatic, contrary and, some say, masterful at marketing that persona -- he has always refused to deliver what his fans expected of him.

"I'm no poet," he once told Rolling Stone magazine, which named his classic "Like a Rolling Stone" the song of the century in 2004. "I'm a trapeze artist."

Todd Haynes' homage to Dylan premieres this week and is one of a spate of documentaries, interviews and books that have dissected the enigmatic singer in the last several years.

This is the first time that Dylan has granted rights to his life story to any nondocumentary project, according to a recent New York Times magazine cover story. Dylan's son Jesse, also a filmmaker, helped Haynes pitch the idea to his father by avoiding terms like "genius" and "voice of a generation."

The film is a biopic, not a historic biography, one that dramatizes a person's life through the most transforming moments. Rather than using a straight narrative, this film loosely weaves together six stories drawn from Dylan's life.

Haynes, best known for "Corporate Ghost" (2004) and "Velvet Goldmine" (1998), never actually invokes Dylan's name nor uses his own soundtrack. Instead, he paints a collage of Dylan's lyrics, interviews, iconic photos and even "paranoid ramblings and rumors" to flesh out the mythology that has surrounded the singer, according to a review in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The publication calls the film "a visionary, hallucinogenic rendering of Dylan's life and music that is as bold as possible, while never seeming contrived or pretentious."

Other critics say the film -- which fittingly uses six actors, including a woman, Cate Blanchett, and a black boy, Marcus Carl Franklin, to play Dylan in various stages of his life -- is Oscar-worthy. Actors Richard Gere, Heath Ledger, Ben Whishaw and Christian Bale add to its star power.

An artistic departure from Martin Scorsese's 2005 documentary, the film only underscores the insatiable appetite that fans and foes alike have for Dylan and his musical canon.

"Dylan still mesmerizes a lot of people," Rolling Stone writer Jonathan Potts, who compiled the "Essential Interviews" in 2006, told ABCNEWS.com.

Dylan began as a folk singer who gave an eloquent voice to the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s in songs like "Blowing in the Wind" and "The Times They are A-Changin'," then evolved into a touring rock legend who continually reinvented himself.

Robert Shelton, The New York Times reporter who is credited with discovering Dylan in the coffeehouses of Greenwich Village in 1961 and getting him his first recording contract, described him as "a cross between a choir boy and a beatnik."

From a middle-class upbringing in Minnesota, Dylan effected a rural Oklahoma persona, mimicking his hero, Depression-era songwriter and singer Woody Guthrie. With surreal lyrics and a raspy voice, Dylan composed, recorded and performed country, gospel, reggae and blues, playing guitar, harmonica and piano.

Dylan made more than 40 albums and wrote hundreds of songs that were recorded by everyone from Marlene Dietrich ("Blowin' in the Wind") to Jimi Hendrix ("All Along the Watchtower").

The Beatles and the Rolling Stones acknowledged his influence and later rock 'n' roll musicians like Tom Petty, Elvis Costello and Mark Knopfler said they owed much to Dylan's singing, playing and writing.

"I never wanted to be a prophet or a savior," Dylan said in a rare interview with "60 Minutes" in 2004, when he had published his memoir "Chronicles, Vol. 1." "Elvis maybe. I could see myself becoming him. But prophet? No."

Even his name was a mystery. Born Robert Zimmerman in 1941 in Duluth, Minn., he later changed his name, some said after the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. But others have noted that as a boy, Dylan loved Westerns and had adopted the name after his television hero, Matt Dillon of "Gunsmoke."