Martin Scorcese’s new ‘documentary’ on Bob Dylan is actually a work of fiction that reinforces Dylan’s image as a shape-shifting trickster
In keeping with Dylan’s inscrutability, Scorsese inserts a bunch of fake people and spins a wholly spurious narrative with a straight face
Hotshot rock critic and all-round funny guy Lester Bangs once intended to write a biography of The Beatles called “The Firstest with the Mostest". It would have been an apt title, given that The Fab Four were literally the first pop musicians to do pretty much everything, from playing at gigantic arenas to being almost torn from limb to limb by adoring fans, to being both incredibly popular and incredibly critically acclaimed. In a way, the same can also be said of the other two who made up the troika of 1960s legends: The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan.
Given their combined cultural impact and clout, it is probably no surprise that all three remain immensely popular, and the Alphas have all managed to remain relevant, well into their seventh decade. The ones with the most uncomplicated public personas are Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. Jagger remains the preening, astonishingly youthful purveyor of old hits, while Richards plays his grizzled, rootsy, blues-loving alter-ego. Paul McCartney is anything you want him to be. Charming Beatle, yes; weird old grandpa, yes; avant-garde noisemaker, yes. And then there’s Dylan.
Very early on in Martin Scorsese’s new movie Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story (streaming now on Netflix), a grizzled and wry Dylan says: “Life isn’t about finding yourself, or about finding anything. Life is about creating yourself. And creating things." And that’s your clue right there, that what you are watching isn’t really a documentary, but a work of meta-fiction. The Rolling Thunder Revue, a spur-of-the-moment concert tour dreamed up by Dylan, did take place, over 1975-76. And yes, just as Scorsese’s movie hints, it did provide a mid-decade jolt to American pop culture. But Rolling Thunder Revue isn’t about that. It’s about Bob Dylan and the way he likes to mess with the heads of his audience.
Dylan, more so than any of his peers, has always been more interested in projecting an idea of himself—in line with America’s rich cultural history of tricksters and confidence men—as a man you can’t pin down. An avowed dedication to shape-shifting has always been his modus operandi. He did it twice in the 1960s: once to stun the folk movement by becoming an electrified rocker, and then by confounding the rock counterculture by going into seclusion to write cryptic, evocative, ramshackle songs about what writer Greil Marcus called the “Old, Weird America". His relentless self-mythologizing is one of the keys to understanding his music as well as his self-regard.
The story of Rolling Thunder Revue is about the ennui of 1975, both within Dylan and in American culture at large. In that year of America’s bicentennial celebrations, nobody really felt like celebrating. The twin humiliations of Vietnam and Watergate had taken the wind out of the country’s sails. The joyous hopes of the counterculture and rock ‘n’ roll had coagulated into cocaine-guzzling stars on endless arena tours and middle-class respectability. Punk and disco were brewing in the wings, as well as a revitalized conservative movement. In hindsight, it was a hinge in the history of the era, and Dylan seemed to get it. He had just come off an extremely successful arena tour of his own, with his long-term collaborators The Band, as well as his most critically acclaimed album in years, Blood On The Tracks (1975). But he was also negotiating a divorce from his partner Sara Dylan, and had been left jaded by the tour. To cut a long story short, he decided to take a collaborative show on the road, keep the music loose and limber, play at small venues and get as many people from his scene of folkies, rockers and poets as possible to join him for the ride. And it worked. Dylan’s performances, slouched around the microphones, eyes bulging and face a white mask, are brilliant.
But this isn’t necessarily the story that Rolling Thunder Revue tells. In keeping with Dylan’s inscrutability, Scorsese inserts a bunch of fake people and spins a wholly spurious narrative with a straight face. One of the key characters in the movie is a film-maker called Stefan van Dorp, who “filmed" the footage that Scorsese uses—a prickly, condescending presence, who, according to Dylan, was a square peg in the round hole of the Revue. Only, Van Dorp is a fake, played by an actor.
So large chunks of the movie become false, but to what end? One way to look at it is that Van Dorp is Dylan, if Dylan was unhip, bitter and unfulfilled in his creative pursuits. To look at Van Dorp, then, becomes an exercise in looking at a facet of Dylan himself. There has been much talk of the Sharon Stone bit in the movie, where apparently Dylan first seduces and then breaks her then-19-year-old heart. That’s another red herring, as Stone had never been near the tour or Dylan at the time. But what does that tell us about Dylan? Nothing probably, except that he likes to toy with people’s expectations.
The tour’s footage was originally shot for Dylan’s scripted surrealistic movie Renaldo And Clara (1978), so even that can’t be treated as a documentary. But it does reveal some great moments, like when Joan Baez and Dylan sing together again, for the first time since the early 1960s, their voices melding beautifully and moving the audience. Or when Joni Mitchell shows up, and teaches Roger McGuinn and Dylan how to play her song Coyote. Dylan, in the presence of a true great and songwriting rival, tries to pretend he doesn’t care. Then there’s musician Scarlet Rivera, a mesmeric presence beside Dylan on stage, with her face-paint, gypsy violin and untouchable cool, saying “Mr Tambourine Man gives us the opportunity to be whoever we wish to be", to the camera. Dylan too has always been who he has wished to be—troubadour, electric poet, born-again Christian. His audience has vainly tried to keep guessing which one’s the real him. After watching the fascinating Rolling Thunder Revue, they will be none the wiser.