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Martin Scorsese Bob Dylan Documentary Fact vs Fiction
Conventional wisdom dictates that Bob Dylan’s legacy is a monolithic thing, unassailable yet sprawling enough to touch the borders of nearly every other cultural movement of the last five decades. It’s not wrong. But it is surprising to see how much Martin Scorsese’s new hybrid concert film/documentary adds to Dylan’s myth, offering an unexpectedly substantive blend of performances, fiction, and behind-the-scenes moments that both defend and further mystify Dylan’s genius.
Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese, which arrived on Netflix on Wednesday, opens with black-and-white footage of an old-timey magician, setting up themes of conjuring and our willingness to believe illusions. The mirror metaphor has been applied endlessly to Dylan—are we seeing what he’s projecting, or simply what we want to see?—but it’s apt in these silent opening frames, particularly as the movie invents situations and people for the sake of this mischievous narrative.
Rolling Thunder Revue is a carnival barker of a film, luring you in with baubles and promises and quietly swindling you while it entertains. It’s almost always effective and impressive, but the fact-fiction line is so blurred that it often runs invisibly, going from amusing to confusing and back again within individual scenes. It fares best when Scorsese allows the footage to unfurl on its own, his heavy but graceful hand speeding it up or slowing it down for effect. The red herrings, while cleverly placed, are unnecessary when there’s already a vast, impressive menagerie holding our attention.
Edited down from what could have only been hundreds of hours of footage for Dylan’s 1978-released curio Renaldo and Clara, the 2-plus-hour movie follows the Rolling Thunder Revue as it rambled across the U.S. in late 1975 and early 1976, just after the country was pivoting from one president (Nixon) to another (Ford) and just before the 1976 bicentennial celebration. It’s important context, as hippie optimism had given way to cynicism in a swiftly worsening economy. Dylan’s idea behind the revue was to spread joy while also indulging hunger for another tour, given that he’d barely hit the road the preceding decade (minus his Tour ’74 with The Band).
Scorsese paws at timeframes and settings, distorting them by months and years and, at times, crafting a pleasantly bewildering collage of mid-’70s American street life. As world-famous as he already was, Dylan fits nicely into this context, his omnipresent hat and nearly-as-ubiquitous sunglasses and white facepaint (on stage, anyway) casting him as a savvy but relaxed ringmaster. And good Christ, but what a circus. In addition to Dylan, who had just released Blood on the Tracks, and his band, with whom he had just recorded Desire, the tour featured dozens of friends from the Greenwich Village folk scene and larger New York artistic world.
We get to see a litany of incredible backstage encounters while jumping forward to the (sort of) present and catching up with many of the surviving members—including Dylan. There are so many big names they’re not often given proper introduction. Most viewers will recognize Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Patti Smith, and Allen Ginsberg, who inject some much-needed air into the proceedings to contrast with Dylan’s inscrutable, off-stage quietude. But the film doesn’t go out of its way to describe what preceded or followed this time period for legends such as Mick Ronson (of Bowie’s Spiders from Mars), Byrds founder Roger McGuinn, fellow troubador Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, or producer T-Bone Burnett. Playwright Sam Shepard stalks the margins after Dylan brings him on to potentially write a screenplay.
Bob Dylan with Allen Ginsburg reading poetry at Jack Kerouac’s grave in Rolling Thunder Revue.
Sharon Stone, a young model at the time, is here, too. But in reality she wasn’t actually there—a character invented for this “documentary” that exploits our willingness to believe tropes about groupies (another good chuckle arrives when the film claims Dylan’s white facepaint was inspired by Kiss). And who’s this Stefan van Dorp, the pretentious filmmaker claiming that he shot all of the original footage for this? That’s actually Martin von Haselberg, Bette Midler’s husband (she’s glimpsed briefly in the beginning) and an actor and NYC art-world figure. Fake, too, is “Congressman Jack Tanner,” played by familiar character actor Michael Murphy. His tales of getting into the Revue thanks to Jimmy Carter’s help are even more confusing and beside the point. (Dylan might have found it funny, at least.)
It’s gentle hucksterism, in other words, but of a dazzling caliber and production value. Full songs—shot from multiple angles, visually and aurally restored—are godsend to anyone looking for a crisp visual document to enhance the audio boxed set that accompanies this Netflix release. Naturally, Scorsese does whatever he wants here with the story. There’s only passing respect for facts, and no mention of how the 1975 portion of the tour went far better than the next year’s installment. References are made to cash grabs and hard decisions about scheduling and cutting stage time, but with invented characters bookending the scenes, why should we care?
Dylan is an avowed trickster, so perhaps this was all his idea—or perhaps it was Scorsese’s, or the result of a joint brainstorming session. It’s not that Dylan is incapable of straightforwardness, he just doesn’t seem to relish it outside of his melodies and lyrics. That’s obvious through Revue. But in this age of disinformation and genuine, government-led propaganda, it’s frustrating to see a film lean so much on deadpan deception with no apparent point beyond presenting a self-indulgent joke.
That doesn’t diminish the enjoyment of seeing Dylan and Baez duet, or Mitchell introduce a new song on acoustic guitar while Dylan and McGuinn look on. Even if you’re not a fan, it’s easy to recognize the gallery-like appeal of such tableaus, manufactured as some may have been. It’s probably unfair to call it Boomer fan-servicing, since that’s the generation that largely made the classic-rock myths we still worship today. But there’s a thrill to seeing these young, beautiful versions of grizzled icons as they smile unselfconsciously at shows, or pack themselves onto the floor at coffeeshops, blissfully themselves and heedless of selfie-stalkers.
Nearly without fault, the performances are lacerating, a mix of tracks from Desire, newly written singles (“Hurricane”) and classics such as “Mr. Tambourine Man,” which opens the film. Dylan looks and sounds possessed, crowding his tempos and stalking a small circle of stage like a drunken gunslinger. “Isis,” “Oh, Sister,” “Maggie’s Farm,” and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” lack the vocal nuance of studio (and other live) versions, but it’s easy to imagine the exhilaration of witnessing them live, the emotion pouring out of Dylan like a hole in the side of a water tank.
The film makes a case for assemblages of talent begetting more talent. At one point, an insightful limo driver describes the interplay between audience and Dylan like one battery charging another. So too are Ginsberg and Dylan, enraptured with one another, reading poetry at Jack Kerouac’s grave. It’s simply amazing footage, regardless of its off-screen contrivance.
Really, the tour deserves all the attention it can get, both for Dylan’s performance fury and the colorful, “con-man carny medicine show of old,” as Ginsberg calls its. “It happened so long ago I wasn’t even born,” Dylan jokes of the tour, casually eliding everything that went into it, good or bad. What else did we expect?
John Wenzel is a reporter and critic-at-large for The Denver Post whose work has appeared in Esquire, Rolling Stone and The Atlantic.