© 2024 WYPR
WYPR 88.1 FM Baltimore WYPF 88.1 FM Frederick WYPO 106.9 FM Ocean City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

To Capture Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue, Martin Scorsese Had To Get Weird

Bob Dylan, photographed in his Rolling Thunder Revue face paint.
Bob Dylan, photographed in his Rolling Thunder Revue face paint.

Here's a thing you should know before watching Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story, Martin Scorsese's new Netflix documentary about one of the most notorious rock tours in the genre's history: Bob Dylan is messing with you. Dylan has been messing with people since his first braggadocio days in Greenwich Village, when his made-up tales of wandering the Southwest with a circus helped convince his friends in the folk scene that he was the real proletarian deal. And he does it in this boisterous, confusing, highly enjoyable and slyly illuminating film, playing the role of the reluctant witness in Scorsese's search for a motive behind the tour that, in Dylan's own words, was not a success, and on his whole mid-1970s career.

"You only tell the truth when you're wearing a mask," Dylan quips in a new interview, providing Scorsese with framing language for his whole film. It's a line he's been working since he started doing interviews in the early '60s, a dominating principle of his artistic process, and a primary idea in the framing of his legacy through myriad musical compilations, books, boxed sets, and other archival efforts. In his own work and in subtle dialogue with people creating work about him, like the critic Greil Marcus and the filmmaker Todd Haynes, Dylan has secured his place as a primary voice within American culture by reminding his public that American voices always engage in myth-making, hucksterism and strategic lies.

Rolling Thunder Revue reiterates this reading of Dylan's life and work by celebrating the tour through which Dylan made that framework obvious. As in: literally wearing masks and white face paint, along with his band, who squiggled their own glam looks on their faces; nodding to rock's artifice in staging each tour stop as a kind of variety show, with poetic interludes and other theatrical flourishes; and simultaneously filming what occurred on the road, much of it staged, for future use in his own cinematic endeavor, the experimental epic (some would call it a Frankenstein monster) Renaldo and Clara. Scorsese's thesis is a believable and, in fact, familiar one: that, at a time when America was questioning its own sustaining, ultimately destructive myths in the wake of the Vietnam War and Watergate, Dylan returned to the glory he'd abdicated during eight years off the road with a tour that put a mirror up to the nation, revealing its carnivalesque soul. Blending those highly theatrical elements with an increasingly improvisational approach to music-making itself, offering up newly composed rock epics like "Isis" and "Hurricane" alongside rearranged classics that inflamed and enraptured his audiences, Dylan reinvented himself (again) by issuing a reckoning for arena rock.

That's true. But many other things are true about Rolling Thunder, as Scorsese and Dylan acknowledge throughout the documentary. For one thing, the tour – which put a huge troupe of musicians, poets and other mischief makers into small venues instead of the arenas Dylan had played on tour with the Band the year before – was a financial flop and a dubious cultural achievement. Its traces on Dylan's career have been debated among fans for decades. Desire, the album that he'd made with an earlier version of the Rolling Thunder band, was a major chart success but bewildered critics, who embraced it while also calling it sloppy and, in Dave Marsh's positive Rolling Stone review, "antimusical." (People were less confused by Renaldo and Clara, which flopped outright both in the press and at the box office.) As for the shows themselves, the historical consensus is that the tour's first leg, which this documentary highlights, was musically groundbreaking, but the second imploded in a gasoline fire of its own excess.

Dylan was also going through what in the '70s was known as a rough personal scene. His long and painful separation from his first wife, Sara Lownds, occupied his heart. Complicating things, Joan Baez, whom he'd left for Sara a decade earlier, was enlisted for the tour after Emmylou Harris opted out (at least, according to the Rolling Thunder Logbook, written by playwright Sam Shepard). Alongside that, the other members of the Rolling Thunder troupe had tangled relationships to their fearless leader, old friends in various states of being favored commingled with neophytes barely launching their musical careers, and hangers-on who proved useful and then did not. Dylan also was aware that his brand of hippie rock was beginning to fade; as some of the most compelling footage in The Rolling Thunder Revue shows, he clearly saw punk, and Patti Smith in particular, in his headlights. And he still hated fame. Most of the archival footage of Dylan interacting with the film crew that followed the tour's every turn shows him actively deflecting the cameras.

So how to make this mess, which Dylan declares meaningless ("I don't have a clue!" he nearly explodes), into something not only coherent, but compelling? Scorsese makes a radical choice: he goes with the blurring of fact and fiction, magical myth and droning reality, that Dylan put at the center of his work then (and now). To that end, he invents characters, reconstructs timelines, and generally blurs factual/fictional boundaries. (Notably, Todd Haynes also followed this impulse in his Dylan "biopic," I'm Not There.) Archival footage is shown out of chronological sequence, and no distinction is made between the scenes Dylan staged for Renaldo and Clara and spontaneous interactions on the road. Certain key figures, like Dylan's longtime right-hand man Bobby Neuwirth and the band's musical director Rob Stoner, aren't interviewed. That may be par for the course in documentary filmmaking, which relies on what material can be secured – but not only that, they are barely mentioned. Instead – and this is Scorsese's biggest Dylanesque mind-bender – much screen time is given to contemporary interviewees who were not in fact present on the tour, and who are playing composite or completely imagined characters.

The first clue about this fictionalizing comes at the film's end, in the credit sequence. A list of "The Players" appears (inspired by the "Character References" Shepard included in his Logbook). Notice the name "Michael Murphy" on that list, as "The Politician." Murphy appears as Michigan Representative Jack Tanner, who tells a winding anecdote about Jimmy Carter helping him get into a Rolling Thunder date in Niagara Falls. Cineastes may quickly note that Jack Tanner is the main character in Robert Altman and Garry Trudeau's satirical mockumentary Tanner '88.

From there, the thread of accuracy continues to unravel. Martin von Haselberg, the haughty auteur supposedly vexing the ensemble as he tries to film the tour's proceedings, is in real life the husband of Dylan's longtime friend Bette Midler and half of the legendary conceptual art duo the Kipper Kids. (The actual director of Renaldo and Clarawas Dylan himself.) The "promoter" who offers useful (and largely verifiable) facts about the financial stumbles the tour took is played by Paramount Pictures CEO Jim Gianopulos. Actor Sharon Stone tells of her experience as Dylan's temporary teenage consort, at first giddily and then tearfully, recounting a cruel joke he played on her. But there's no evidence that she jumped on the tour at nineteen, although Dylan does find her attractive – enough, at least, to have made her the subject of a collage he exhibited in 2012.

This fakery, reminiscent of Christopher Guest's classic This is Spinal Tap,is what Dylan's getting at when he elaborates, about midway through, on the "mask" theme, saying, "If someone's wearing a mask he's gonna tell you the truth. If he's not wearing a mask it's highly unlikely." Rolling Thunder, the film itself, wears a mask. It pretends to be a typical music doc while operating in that space between verité and fantasy, where Renaldo and Clara itself was intended to flourish. An amazing conversation between Dylan and Patti Smith, from a pre-tour party at Gerde's Folk City in New York, has her making up a wild story about a coal meteorite that crashes to earth on a baseball diamond and becomes a crystal ball, as he nods enthusiastically. What seems like an intimate scene between Baez and Dylan, in which she asks him why he didn't marry her, is a fully costumed Renaldo and Clara outtake. (Of the scene, which he witnessed, Shepard wrote, "This is turning into the worst melodrama on earth or the best head-to-head confessional ever put to film.")

Dylan's commentary further confounds things. Explaining the white makeup that many found racially ambiguous, Dylan doubles down on its connection to KISS while ignoring the role Mick Ronson might have played, though Ronson had been face-paint pioneer David Bowie's lead guitarist and, according to Shepard, inspired the band's makeup choices. Dylan also makes claims that ring about as true as an old uncle's holiday-dinner whoppers. For example, that violinist Scarlet Rivera — who also doesn't get a new interview but whose archival presence alone should return her to stardom — kept snakes in her dressing room.

By participating in Dylan's serious game of locating truth behind masks, Scorsese creates a fascinating document, more like Dylan and his work than like a film about him. It's a very different approach than in his masterful, but fairly conventional, 2005 Dylan doc, No Direction Home,which covered his emergence in the '60s.That film shored up the widely accepted idea that Dylan became the voice of his generation by emptying out his work of his own ego and channeling the passions and anxieties of his time, along with source material from throughout American musical history. This one updates that theme to suit a later period, when truth felt increasingly difficult to pin down, but also the current view of Dylan as perhaps music's primary voice against investing in any one version of reality. Various assertions that Dylan regularly lifts material from other sources, using a technique now known among literary scholars as "mosaic writing," has not damaged the Nobel Laureate's reputation – it's only made his art more relevant (and prescient) in the age of hip-hop samples and Instagram memes. (Hell, he employed the technique in his Nobel lecture.) Presenting a Dylan story instead of a genuinely historical account, Scorsese reinforces this framing of Dylan's genius.

And a funny thing happened on the way to this imaginary look back at Rolling Thunder.

Scorsese and producer Margaret Bodde, cherry picking and restoring the best of the heap of unseen or incoherently bootlegged material from the Dylan archive, have created a character study of real power within their semi-fictional endeavor. Dylan aficionados may long for more on the band, or anything at all about the time that Sara Dylan spent on the tour, or a more chronologically accurate depiction of Dylan's quest to help the wrongly imprisoned boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter claim justice. Joni Mitchell, who guested on sixteen Rolling Thunder tour dates, gets one song from a rehearsal session. Baez gets no solo appearances, though she opened every show. Yet deep insight is provided about other key relationships, especially his bonds with Baez and his other spiritual intimate, Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg, who died in 1997, speaks in long-buried footage throughout the film, and comments on the poet, from Dylan and other contemporaries, clarify their mutual respect as well as their rivalry. And both through interviews and in the live and backstage footage of the two interacting, Baez's infinitely complicated relationship to Dylan as peer, mentor, protégé, lover and twin becomes clearer than ever.

Finally, there are the central relationships of Dylan's life, with his music and his stardom. Alongside Prince, Madonna and David Bowie, Dylan is the pop artist most engaged with the process of thinking through what it means to be a star – a living repository of people's dreams, a conduit for history, and simultaneously a person, with ambitions and quirks and actual relationships. Dylan made his ideas about fame more explicit within Rolling Thunder than he ever had before; he was noticing glam and arena rock, trying to live up to the challenge posed by his anointed heir Patti Smith, and working to reframe his classic songs within new settings that exposed how they spoke truth and made myth at the same time. Contemplating what it means to be a hero to most (or at least some), Dylan pushed himself in all kinds of ways. The wealth of live footage in Rolling Thunder Revue shows this in ways that any amount of framing, fictional or otherwise, can only enhance or obscure. Scorsese knows to let it stand. The film shows versions of many songs in their entirety, and that crew always bugging the musicians got up close, so you can see the ardor and focus – and, often, fear – in Dylan's kohl-lined eyes. The way he and the band turn his post-nuclear ballad "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" into a deep Chicago blues number, or his tender introversion singing the heartbroken "A Simple Twist of Fate" – these performances push aside all the talk about masks, and all of Dylan and Scorsese's tricksterism, and show that in the hands of such a master, music makes new realities comprehensible only on its own terms.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ann Powers is NPR Music's critic and correspondent. She writes for NPR's music news blog, The Record, and she can be heard on NPR's newsmagazines and music programs.