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“That’s all clumsy bullshit,” Bob Dylan spews in the opening minutes of Martin Scorsese’s Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story, the new Netflix documentary about Dylan’s unconventional 1975 Rolling Thunder tour. It’s rare for Dylan to do interviews, rarer still to show his face, and it’s clear he doesn’t want to mince words with a fuzzy description. “I’m trying to get to the core of what this Rolling Thunder thing is all about. And I don’t have a clue! It’s about nothing. It’s just something that happened 40 years ago … That’s the truth of it.”
Dylan’s hazy memories aligns with his tour’s shambolic, carnivalesque nature. It was his second time playing music abroad after his 1966 motorcycle accident. He’d toured with The Band the previous year in sold-out arenas. With Rolling Thunder, Dylan became playful, turning the revue into a “carnie medicine show,” as Allen Ginsberg puts it in the film (he tagged along as the tour’s muse). On stage, Dylan wore white face paint, a fedora covered in flowers, occasionally a mask. His troupe played small, intimate venues where he could explore his craft and simply not give a crap. Among his caravan of musician friends were Joan Baez, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Joni Mitchell, The Byrds’ Roger McGuinn, Ronee Blakley, Bob Neuwirth, and Patti Smith. Artists came and went throughout the North American tour, which spanned the fall and winter of 1975 into spring of the following year. Dylan also hired a filmmaker to extensively shoot the tour, as well as playwright Sam Shepard to write a film script (the unreleased critical failure Renaldo and Clara). This is where Scorsese’s documentary steps in, taking over and refining the resplendently restored, comprehensive footage.
The director has contextualized Dylan for us before with the rich, layered 2005 doc No Direction Home. Here, Scorsese follows the lackadaisical approach of the Revue in his compilation to the film’s detriment; it doesn’t help that the earthy ‘70s film stock never quite fully captures the insouciant energy of its time. Dylan appears to have inspired Scorsese as well, as he flagrantly doctors the truth before his own camera. Indeed, Rolling Thunder Revue is as much a mockumentary as a documentary.
We know Dylan loves to contradict himself; it’s all part of his branding. Scorsese plays ball: four of the talking heads in the doc are believably wry or wistful, but their accounts are fabricated. Stefan van Dorp, a sulky experimental filmmaker who supposedly helped hire Shepard, is not a real person, but Bette Midler’s husband Martin von Haselberg. Sharon Stone falsely claims to have attended Rolling Thunder wearing a KISS sweatshirt and inspiring Dylan’s kabuki gimmick. Paramount Pictures CEO Jim Gianopulos is on record saying he promoted the tour, but he didn’t. And a Congressman named Jack Tanner who speaks eloquently about Dylan’s political art supposedly got into a show via Jimmy Carter; this never happened and Tanner doesn’t exist.
Why all the fabrications, given Scorsese’s lack of a track record for them in his docs? Perhaps it’s because the footage and memories of Rolling Thunder are all so hazy, and because the tour, despite its feverish dionysian roots, was really about nothing in the end. So the film crew decided to get a little creative, a smidge spicy. Perhaps they wanted to prevent making a No Direction Home sequel.
The simplest answer, however, resides in one of Dylan’s best lines in the film: “If someone’s wearing a mask, he’s gonna tell you the truth.”
Deception is Dylan’s M.O., and in Rolling Thunder Revue, Scorsese is his comptroller. The musician has never found it easy presenting himself as just himself; he’s as talented in mythologizing as he is in writing poetry. His career-long reticence for the publicity machine has made the rare Bob Dylan interview a kind of Holy Grail for music journalists. On the rare occasions when he is taking questions, one can’t help but feel like he’s being pestered. His answers range from simplistic to contradictory to poetic. The subtext is always “the answers are all in my songs, man.” Dylan seems to prefer appearing publicly when writing and performing music and hoping that’s good enough.
For a musician who built a career on lies, half-truths, and personal reinventions, it’s almost surprising there hasn’t been a Dylan mockumentary until now. Rolling Thunder Revue, then, is another extension of that brand. But! There is one moment in the film that is surely truthful — a delicious, rare segment of offstage footage between the young Dylan and Baez. They play a kind of verbal footsie before the camera, and comment on each other’s marriages, hinting at the forlorn nature of their breakup. One can detect a glimmer of real pain behind their eyes that reappears in their present-day talking-head interviews. Love never lies, Mr. Dylan.
Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story is now available for streaming on Netflix.