Martin Scorsese’s Bob Dylan film ‘Rolling Thunder Revue’ is a masterful reconstruction of facts and fiction
Bob Dylan is speaking, “I don’t have a clue,” he says. “It’s about nothing. It happened so long ago, I wasn’t even born.” Dylan, talking about a series of concerts he gave at the end of 1975, is trying to add flavour to the new Netflix documentary directed by Martin Scorsese, a project which appears to have made a partly fictional reconstruction of the notorious tour called Rolling Thunder Revue—and Dylan decides to play the game as well. Together they create a kind of reinterpretation of a tour that lasted only six weeks but became a highlight in the musical career of Dylan. The singer was in the middle of an artistic peak and had just completed his masterpiece Blood On The Tracks and successor Desire was in the making.
The film of almost two-and-a-half hours is amusing, misleading, stimulating, and a game which seeming plays with reality and truth. A visual fever dream. At the same time, Rolling Thunder Revue acts as a parody of music documentaries in which talking heads tell strong stories. Dylan once wrote about his wife Sara, penning the words: “So easy to look at so hard to define,” you could say the same about this film.
But rest assured, much of what we see is real and genuine. Just like the live recordings, and most of the interviews from then and now, are authentic. There was indeed a film crew present who feverishly recorded everything and Scorsese makes good use of it. Dylan, who is in great form, plays along as his band appears a bunch of disorderly, but they assemble beautiful, ragged versions of old and new songs.
But let’s take a closer look at the facts and fiction. The subtitle is A Bob Dylan Story. Aha, isn’t it Bob Dylan himself who has drawn a smokescreen as a cover up more often? Already at the start of his career he told stories to the media that turned out to be incorrect. Probably to demythologise his increasing idolisation? The opening images are another indication. A disappearing trick as a magic act from the short film Escamotage d’une Dame Chez Robert-Houdin from 1896.
The story and the myth are familiar territory to Bob Dylan. His texts contain countless influences, sometimes literally, sometimes through metaphors. It fits in with the tradition of old folk music in which stories are told and made up. Later in the film Dylan makes a striking statement: “If someone wears a mask, he tells the truth. If he is not wearing a mask, that is unlikely”. In this ‘documentary’ nobody is wearing a mask.
Soon we’re introduced to a certain Stefan van Dorp and the suggestion is made that he is of Dutch descent and that he not only recorded this tour of 1975, but also a few short films, including one about the band Shocking Blue—but this Stefan van Dorp does not exist at all. He is played very convincingly by performance-artist Martin von Haselberg, also the husband of singer Bette Midler. The latter is briefly shown in an old tour footage. Von Haselberg portrays Van Dorp very sharply as a somewhat knowledgeable boaster. Hilarious is his remark that Dylan has taken over his European way of smoking (cigarette between middle and ring finger). Van Dorp uses the Dutch words “brood en spelen,” cites l’Amérique Insolite, an existing documentary about oddities in the USA of the 1950s. Looking back, Dylan says that Van Dorp stuck his nose in matters that didn’t concern him. We already said it. Dylan is playing the game as well.
And hey, suddenly there is Shocking Blue in the Scorsese film with their smash hit Venus, a track recorded at the Stedelijk Museum. Dutch band Shocking Blue in a Bob Dylan movie? What is going on here? Maybe this. The song, by guitarist Robbie van Leeuwen, is actually his interpretation of ‘Oh! Susanna’ which was written in 1848 by Stephen Foster, one of the founders of the American Songbook. There is, of course, a link to Dylan given the fact he had covered Fosters Hard Times, found on his ode to the old folk, the album Good As I Been To You. Dylan has, of course, reinterpreted old folk and blues songs many times through his own work.
There is another link to the Netherlands when Dylan performs for Native Americans during the tour and is handed a set of beads. According to the quote in the film, the symbol “could be the same beads that Peter Minuit treaded with our people for Manhattan Island.” Minuit is of course the Dutch governor who “bought” Manhattan in 1626 from the original inhabitants of America. The New Amsterdam Fort was built on the island of Manhattan, which later grew into the city of New York. The city where it all started for Dylan. Scorsese starts his film in the run-up to 1976, with the celebration of the then 200-year existence of America.
Prior to Shocking Blue, a painting is shown, briefly but emphatically: Peinture A Haut Tension by Martial Raysse and, like many messages in the film, his work is not shown without reason. The French pop-art painter belonged to the Nouveaux Réalistes and this artists movement, founded around 1960, sought a different approach to reality, committed to a mythology of the everyday.
Another striking “talking head” is Jim Gianopulos who claims that it was he who initiated the tour at the time. In contrast to Van Dorp, this Gianopulos does indeed exist and is the current CEO of Paramount Pictures. In the 1970s, however, he had no involvement with Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue. Nevertheless, he talks extensively about paying bills and advances to keep the tour going. Typically, the viewer falls for it completely.
Apparently, the makers are keen to fool the truth. Among other things by making use of fake photos and sound and assembly tricks. Take, for example, the shot immediately after Dylan’s first words in the film. It is an excerpt from ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ when Dylan sings: “And take me disappearing in the smoke rings of my mind.”
One of the “revelations” in the film is that a 19-year-old Sharon Stone would have been part of the Dylan entourage. However, the actress from Martin Scorsese’s Casino was only 17 at the time of the tour. The photo on which she gets a signature from Dylan is fake. Yet Stone tells contagiously and with plausible details that she was on this tour. She was even allowed to iron a shirt for singer Joan Baez. However, her entire contribution is completely made up. It is a clever game Scorsese plays with the stories of rock fans who supposedly were there but in their perception make everything bigger than it was.
Then there is the crazy story about the band Kiss. Dylan, performing during the tour with a white-painted face, now claims that his violinist Scarlet Rivera had a relationship with Kiss-singer Gene Simmons and therefore had taken him once to a performance of the band in Queens, New York. Not a bad idea, were it not that Kiss only played there in 1973. Dylan met Rivera two years later. Nevertheless, Dylan now suggests that he was influenced by the face painting of the hardrock band. Apparently he still has some sort of connection to Kiss—a Gene Simmons lookalike shows up in the video of his 2012 song ‘Duquesne Whistle’.
Finally, there is an interview with “politician” Jack Tanner. But wait, this is actor Michael Murphy. Tanner claims that he attended one of the concerts at the request of the future president and actual Dylanfan Jimmy Carter. Tanner is in fact a character from a TV series, a 1988 mockumentary by Robert Altman, played by indeed Michael Murphy at the time.
Undoubtedly there are more “clues” and craziness in Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story but more importantly, the makers also show truths linked to historical events with ample attention to Dylan’s music and engagement. In 1975 the ideals of the sixties had literally gone up in smoke. He mentions the fall of Saigon, the humiliating departure of the US army out of Vietnam. President Nixon comes into the picture, partly due to his involvement in the Watergate scandal.
Quite intimate is a moment between Dylan and folksinger Joan Baez. The affection they feel for each other is tangible yet they did not marry each other. For a moment they look deep into each other’s eyes, Dylan laughing uncomfortably: “You see that’s what thought has to do with it. Thought will fuck you up. It’s heart it’s not head.”