“When somebody’s wearing a mask, he’s gonna tell you the truth. When he’s not wearing a mask, it’s highly unlikely,” says a witty 78-year old Bob Dylan in Martin Scorsese’s most recent film about the famed musician (who is, of course, not donning a mask). It is safe to assume that Scorsese himself wasn’t donning one while compiling the footage either.
The celebrated singer-songwriter had not hit the road in nine years prior to his Rolling Thunder Revue tour (other than joining The Band on tour a year prior). Though an awful motorcycle accident in 1966 had left Dylan unable to travel for a while, it gave him the incentive to reinvent himself musically. In 1975, Dylan gathered a rag-tag team of musicians, poets, writers, and other artists to put on a vaudeville-inspired tour that catered to small-town audiences who may not have had the opportunity to see him before. Included in this act was the donning of white facepaint, perhaps to emulate the vaudevillians he was paying homage to, masking himself from the former musician rock audiences had come to know. The man and his band as fans knew them were not how they appeared, and neither is this film.
Rolling Thunder Revue at first seems like the traditional rock doc – it follows Dylan and friends (such as fellow folk musician Joan Baez and famed poet Allen Ginsberg) practicing and writing new songs, hitting the road, and remaining the political activists they had come to be known for along the way. Archival footage is cut with present day interviews from the surviving members of the band – including a rare appearance by Dylan himself – as well as artist friends that had gotten to contribute to the shows. Aside from providing backstage information on the drama included in the average day of tour, separate vignettes related to the events showed the audience the involvement of budding actress Sharon Stone and Dylan’s work to release the wrongfully accused Rubin “Hurricane” Carter from jail (the subject of Dylan’s hit “Hurricane”).
Yet, it may hit the audience that something is off. Scorsese’s “documentation” – in quotes because the film is never officially titled a documentary – of the tour opens with an excerpt from an 1896 film by French pioneer Georges Méliès in which a magician causes a woman to vanish and then reappear. Scorsese is telling the audience straight away that his film that follows is a trick, an illusion – A Bob Dylan Story. The director is surely piecing together real archival footage, but he is not presenting it in a completely honest way. But why should he? Most of the footage from 1975 comes from Renaldo and Clara, a 1978 film Dylan himself directed that recounts the events of the tour – albeit fictionally. That being said, the only other accounts of the tour come from the people who took part in it, recalling events that happened forty years prior. Dylan himself says, “I’m trying to get to the core of what this Rolling Thunder thing is all about, and I don’t have a clue. Because it’s about nothing. It’s just something that happened forty years ago. And that’s the truth of it. I don’t remember a thing about Rolling Thunder. It happened so long ago, I wasn’t even born. So what do you wanna know?”
How can a director ever document a tour that has so many differing accounts truthfully? Simple…he doesn’t. Just as the Rolling Thunder Revue itself was a tour that spouted countless rock and roll myths, Scorsese’s film plays along in the same fashion. Take filmmaker Stefan van Dorp, who was shown to be responsible for filming the 1975 tour footage and was willing to be interviewed for the doc. Van Dorp is entirely fictional, a character played by Martin von Haselberg, performance artist and husband to Bette Midler. Another instance involves Sharon Stone’s involvement with the tour as a 19 year old, apparently prompting Dylan to spout his iconic white-face in imitation of the rock band KISS. Before this, nothing has been said about any relationship between Stone and Dylan, though she had worked with Scorsese. A sequence involving Rep. Jack Tanner, “one of the youngest members of the Congress,” shows him getting a special guest-list invitation to a Dylan concert by none other than current President Jimmy Carter. But Tanner is a fictionalized character from Robert Altman’s Tanner ‘88, and is played by actor Michael Murphy.
So with plenty of already interesting material to work with, why would Scorsese add so many fabricated sequences in the film?. It seems that it all comes down to the director’s ability to remain creative even in his later years – even while working with nonfiction! Scorsese has approached Dylan more conventionally before in 2005’s No Direction Home, focusing on the artist’s early years prior to the motorcycle accident. Maybe he didn’t want to repeat himself again with this project. In fact, a novel approach fits perfectly with the entire theme of the Rolling Thunder Revue tour, with its mythic reputation.
Fictional sequences aside, there is still a lot of truth in the film. Dylan and his band did tour in 1975 and they did play to smaller crowds, as was their intention. For music fans, the moments that truly shine aren’t the interview segments anyway, but the extensive concert footage showing Dylan in rare anarchist form. If this isn’t the musician’s best documented playing, then it’s certainly his most energetic, most charismatic, and perhaps, most important. At this point, Dylan reached a certain freedom in his music that is evident onstage. One can hear the influences of the emerging punk movement as Dylan’s talk-singing evolves into a sort of shout-scream, while still never falling out of character.
Rolling Thunder Revue captures Bob Dylan at a high point in his storied career, despite the tour itself being a failure. His 78-year-old self remarks on this, but there is no detection of regret in his words. The tour was a new beginning for him and it was fun. It certainly shows, because the footage that Scorsese preserves captures just that.