With films like D.A. Pennebaker’s seminal 1967 documentary Don’t Look Back and Todd Haynes’s shapeshifting 2007 musical drama I’m Not There, the cinema has maintained a steady preoccupation with the myth of Robert Zimmerman. Fourteen years after Martin Scorsese first took on the legendary American singer in the 2005 documentary No Direction Home, the filmmaker returns with the Netflix-produced Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story — a 142-minute feature that’s part concert film, part mockumentary, and all magic trick. (It’s no accident that the film begins with a Méliès clip, nor that the opening title card reads: “Conjuring the Rolling Thunder Re-vue.”) The film’s eponymous subject is the unusual tour Dylan started in 1975, which was comprised not of typical concert appearances in large arenas, but of performances in relatively intimate venues from a rotating group of artists and musicians. Patti Smith, Allen Ginsberg, Joan Baez, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott were there from the start. But along the way, others like Joni Mitchell went along for the ride, sensing something valuable (and likely unrepeatable) in this off-beat American journey, which is seen here in riveting concert snippets. The first uninterrupted song we hear is Dylan’s rendition of “Isis” in Montreal from December 1975 — which is absolutely electrifying, and will be hard not to default to in favor of the album version. Similarly memorable, though in a more casual key, is an impromptu hang-out session where Mitchell introduces Dylan and Roger McGuinn to “Coyote.” All this and more we are able to see through the efforts of European director Stefan van Dorp, whose footage constitutes the better part of the film — though as he states in a contemporary interview, he had always set out to create more than just a concert movie. Over four decades later, Scorsese has done exactly that.
If Pennebaker’s vérité-style documentary explored the nascent tensions between Dylan’s physical presence and his public, shape-shifting persona, then Scorsese’s mix of fact and falsehood takes the artist’s unknowability as a foregone conclusion.
But there’s a catch: van Dorp isn’t a real person. The supposed filmmaker is played by Martin von Haselberg, while the backstage and concert footage we see across Rolling Thunder Revue was actually shot by Chicago cameraman Howard Alk, who died in 2009. And as it turns out, this fabrication is just one of many that Scorsese has peppered across the runtime, with no signposts — visual, tonal, or otherwise — that anyone being interviewed might either be making stuff up (as is the case with Sharon Stone, who alludes to the possibility that “Just Like a Woman” was written for her), or might not exist at all (as with “Rep. Jack Tanner,” a fictional presidential candidate from Robert Altman’s mockumentary Tanner ‘88). Why all the obfuscation? Perhaps the answer lies in an off-hand interview by Dylan himself about the white face-paint (and occasional masks) he put on during the tour: “When a person wears a mask, he’s going to tell you the truth.” If Pennebaker’s vérité-style documentary explored the nascent tensions between Dylan’s physical presence and his public, shape-shifting persona, then Scorsese’s mix of fact and falsehood takes the artist’s unknowability as a foregone conclusion. Although these additions might smack of artistic hubris on Scorsese’s part — a way to put a personal spin on the archival material — they also speak to a certain humility, albeit of an oddly prankish sort. There’s an implicit assumption that even for a filmmaker of Scorsese’s stature, probing at Dylan’s artistry through more conventional means would have been beyond him. What Rolling Thunder Revue offers, then, is exactly what the (sub)title promises: a Bob Dylan story, just one of many possible versions. Viewers can attempt to untangle fact from fiction through endless hours of post-viewing research, which may or may not be a productive way of learning about the Nobel Prize-winning musician. But what is certain is that Dylan’s music, as seen here, will endure far longer than the stories and myths surrounding it. In its oblique, lively, and often bewildering way, Rolling Thunder Revue embodies that line of thinking to the fullest degree.
You can currently stream Martin Scorsese’s Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story on Netflix.