“The only thing we knew for sure about Henry Porter is that his name wasn’t Henry Porter,” Bob Dylan, “Brownsville Girl”
“All the truth in the world adds up to one big lie,” Bob Dylan, “Things Have Changed”
Long before Donald Trump, Bob Dylan, in his songs and in his life, epitomized the fluidity of truth. He created his own myth, perpetuated with a playful grin over decades of reinvention. Dylan is not the “little boy lost,” who “takes himself so seriously.” He’s the Judas who alienated fans by going electric and who baffled everyone with three born-again Christian albums. And, in a monumental new collaboration with Oscar-winning director Martin Scorsese, he’s cast himself as the mischievous mangler of history.
In “Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story,” released earlier this month on Netflix, Dylan obliterates the line between fact and fiction. To the uninitiated, this movie could appear to be a documentary. It combines footage from Dylan’s 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue, a 57-show tour of small venues across North America, on which he was accompanied by an ever-changing band of musicians, poets, friends, journalists, filmmakers and hangers-on.
Dylan and Scorsese have worked together before. Sort of. In 2005, Scorsese made “No Direction Home,” tracking the career and influence of Dylan from his emergence in the early sixties to his near-fatal motorcycle accident in July 1966. But Dylan’s involvement in that project was limited to a single on-camera interview. At the time, his office issued a statement, saying that “[Dylan] has no interest in this… Bob truly does not look back.”
And, while it appears for a brief moment that Dylan is in a more collaborative mood for Scorsese this time, they make it abundantly clear from the outset that this is not going to be a run-of-the-mill documentary. The pre-credit scene of a very obviously fake magic trick from the early days of cinema, coupled with the use of the word “conjuring” to describe the endeavor, make that abundantly clear.
Within five minutes, Dylan himself has confirmed that viewers must not rely on him for the truth.
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“I wouldn’t say it was a traditional revue, but it was in the traditional form of a revue,” Dylan growls. “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 40 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.”
Indeed, the central premise of “Rolling Thunder Revue” is a lie. According to the movie, the footage of the concerts, the backstage interactions and life on the road with Dylan and his entourage was shot by a European filmmaker by the name of Stefan van Dorp. In reality, all the footage was shot by Dylan for “Renaldo and Clara,” an experimental movie cowritten by Sam Shepard in 1978. Van Dorp is played by Martin von Haselberg, an artist and Bette Midler’s husband.
Scorsese dips into the footage from “Renaldo and Clara” – which combined concert footage with improvised scenes starring Dylan and his tour-mates – throughout “Rolling Thunder Revue.” This makes it impossible to know what is genuine and what is invention. Did Sharon Stone really join the tour, ironing Joan Baez’s shirt and inspiring Dylan to paint his face white by introducing him to the glam metal band Kiss? Did President Jimmy Carter really call Dylan to get Rep. Jack Tanner, “one of the youngest members of the Congress,” into a small-town concert, after the Democrat was stranded in the same small town where the tour happened to be? The answer to both these questions is no. Stone would only have been 17 at the time and, in any case, the Rolling Thunder Revue never came to her home state. And there was no “Jack Tanner” in Congress; the character was lifted from a 1988 mockumentary by Garry Trudeau and reprised here by Michael Murphy.
Even the origin of the name of the tour is in doubt. According to journalist Larry “Ratso” Sloman, Dylan told him that he was sitting at home, listening to a storm, and heard the thunder rolling across the sky. Later, Dylan appears to adopt a more mystical source, when he learns that “rolling thunder” is a Native American way of saying “speaking the truth.” And, as Sloman points out, Operation Rolling Thunder was also the codename of the United States’ aerial bombardment of Vietnam.
There’s one moment in “Rolling Thunder Revue” in which contemporary Dylan lets the mask slip. Masks played an important role in the tour. Dylan wanted everybody to wear them on stage and often did so himself. When he didn’t, he would wear white face paint. “When somebody’s wearing a mask,” an unmasked Dylan tells the interviewer, “he’s gonna tell you the truth. When he’s not wearing a mask, it’s highly unlikely.” The grin on Dylan’s face as he delivers that line – clearly appreciating and enjoying the contradiction – is delicious.
In fact, it seems like everyone involved is having a great time. The movie combined contemporary interviews and archive footage of Joan Baez, Patti Smith, Joni Mitchell, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Roger McGuinn, T-Bone Burnett, Mick Ronson, Ronee Blakley, poet Allen Ginsburg and many others who were part (or claimed to be part) of the Rolling Thunder Revue.
The concert footage captures the raw energy of the tour perfectly: the intimacy of the venues; Dylan’s moodiness offstage and his often manic performances onstage; the tensions between artists and the tension between Dylan and his managers, who felt he should be playing more lucrative gigs. But it also captures Dylan’s mischievous side. Dylan’s lyrics are often wryly funny and this part of his character is prominent throughout “Rolling Thunder Revue.”
The music is almost secondary. Fans of Dylan have heard these interpretations of the material in many formats – thanks at first to the Dylan bootleg industry and later to his record company. And, as has so often been the case over his six-decade career, his relationship with audiences is often strained.
The Dylan myth is impenetrable – and long may it remain that way. His contribution to modern culture is so profound that knowing the truth, the whole truth, about him would almost certainly detract from the whole.