2019-06-12 15:00:00

Even a recovering Bob Dylan fanatic like me might make it through Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese without catching any of its tricks. Martin Scorsese’s previous Dylan documentary, No Direction Home, is pretty straightforward; this new one, focusing on his 1975 tour, is more playful with the truth.

Toward the end, for example, I realized that one of the film’s talking head commentators looked weirdly familiar. It was actor Michael Murphy, reflecting on a carnival-like 1975 tour Dylan headlined, with Joan Baez, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Allen Ginsberg, Joni Mitchell, Mick Ronson, and many others along for the ride.

But Murphy wasn’t talking as a fan: he was speaking as Rep. Jack Tanner, the character he created with director Robert Altman and cartoonist Garry Trudeau for the 1988 HBO miniseries Tanner ’88, and the Sundance Channel’s 2004 follow-up, Tanner on Tanner. It’s not exactly the most widely remembered show in television history—and what “Tanner” was saying didn’t sound all that implausible, making it easy for a viewer to get duped.

So why include something like this in a so-called documentary at all? Because being obsessed with Bob Dylan means analyzing and scrutinizing and holding each note up to the light to find new interpretations. In this world a raucous sing-along with the chorus “everybody must get stoned!” couldn’t possibly just be about getting stoned—but any mention of the word “rain” must mean heroin. A track about the end of a relationship, called “Sara,” couldn’t just be about Dylan’s impending divorce, even if he got divorced from a woman named Sara. As a capital-G genius (thank you, Swedish Academy!), everything Dylan does and says has to have some additional meaning.

Dylan brought this on himself. He came on the scene in the early 1960s, claiming to be a hobo riding the rails who sang a song to Woody Guthrie in a New York hospital. He was actually a middle-class kid named Robert Zimmerman—but he did make that hospital visit! His 2004 memoir, Chronicles: Volume One, was a best seller, but biographer Clinton Heylin calls parts of it “a work of fiction.” In Rolling Thunder Revue, an off-screen interviewer—possibly Scorsese, although it’s tough to tell—asks Dylan to summarize the 1975 tour. “I don’t remember a thing about [it]…I wasn’t even born!” Dylan replies. He wears the elusive nature of truth like a bolo tie.

So here is something of a scorecard for Rolling Thunder Revue, an attempt at gauging more precisely what in the film is real, and what’s not. It’s likely an imperfect list, but that’s probably the best we can do; when I asked Netflix for clarification on a few points, this was the response I received: “The film is not a typical documentary—meaning Marty and team cleverly blended fact and fiction to conjure the essence of the tour and the times…We are not specifically discussing all the choices and why, and want to keep the surprise elements of the film for first-time viewers to experience as they are watching.”

Rep. Jack Tanner: 100% FAKE

As mentioned above, Jack Tanner is a character played by Michael Murphy (costar of Woody Allen’s Manhattan, Wes Craven’s Shocker, and Brett Ratner’s X-Men: The Last Stand), created by Robert Altman and Doonesbury’s Garry Trudeau. In Rolling Thunder Revue, he spins a yarn about President Jimmy Carter scoring him tickets to the show. Carter was indeed a Dylan fan, but the truth ends there. Tanner ’88, the political satire in which the Tanner character was born, boasts cameos from people like Ralph Nader, Studs Terkel, and Art Buchwald. Ain’t that a party! Cynthia Nixon also plays the candidate’s college-age daughter. Tanner on Tanner (2004), in which the character also appears, is probably the only series out there with footage of Al Franken playing racquetball.

Stefan van Dorp: 98% FAKE

There is a lot to unpack within this patrician, European film director, whose footage is purportedly re-used for Rolling Thunder Revue. The director is actually a character played by actor Martin von Haselberg, probably best known for being Bette Midler’s husband. (In an even more meta in-joke, Midler herself appears for an instant in Rolling Thunder Revue, in old footage taken at the club Gerde’s Folk City. Dig further and there’s some evidence that she and Dylan actually were quite familiar for a time in the ’70s.)

Scorsese’s film implies that “van Dorp,” prior to coming to the U.S. to self-finance a Dylan documentary, was the stylist and director for the band Shocking Blue (most famous for the song “Venus”), a gag that perhaps stems from childish mockery of von Haselberg’s name. (Shocking Blue was from the Netherlands; the band featured Robbie van Leeuwen on guitar and Cor van der Beek on drums.)

What’s actually true is that Dylan did hire people (primarily Howard Alk) to shoot mountains of footage from the 1975 tour, for a project called Renaldo and Clara. The concert footage in Scorsese’s film comes from that cache, as does some of the backstage hijinks we see, and a few of those sequences are ported over directly from the finished version of Renaldo and Clara. What we see very little of are “fictional” scenes from the Renaldo and Clara project, which we’ll get to next.

Sam Shepard: TRUE

Sam Shepard actually was on the 1975 Dylan tour—and as is described in Rolling Thunder Revue, he was employed to craft some sort of dramatic framework for off-hour film “scenes” starring Dylan, Baez, Sara Dylan, and others. Musician Ronnie Hawkins appeared in Renaldo and Clara as “Bob Dylan,” and actor Ronee Blakley (another Robert Altman connection, as she is best known for playing Barbara Jean in his film Nashville) plays “Mrs. Dylan.”

“Wow,” I can hear you saying. “This sounds nuts! Where can I see Renaldo and Clara”?

Well legally it isn’t easy. The nearly four-hour-long movie was barely released in theaters, and has never made it to DVD or streaming. A spongy VHS dupe from a German television broadcast is probably floating around out there—but I’m here to tell you that while the project may sound cool, it’s actually an absolute bore. It’s a bunch of nonactors exhausted from performing, mumbling their way through a half-cocked scenario in a bunch of hotel rooms. Some brave internet soul wrote a scene-by-scene summary if you’re really curious.

Sharon Stone: PROBABLY FAKE

One of the best moments in Scorsese’s film is when Sharon Stone suggests that she, as a teenage model, hooked up with then 34-year-old Bob Dylan somewhere on the road during the Rolling Thunder Revue.

There is no evidence that this actually happened. My educated guess is that Stone did not “join the tour” to help with the costumes, even if Baez says she did. Prior to this week, the only apparent connection between Dylan and Stone was the (let’s face it) bad collage he made of the actor that showed at the Gagosian Gallery in 2012.

Gene Simmons: PROBABLY TRUE

A lot of misdirection emerges organically from the Rolling Thunder tour, because Dylan and company can be seen onstage wearing masks and face paint. Scorsese says that these disguises were influenced by high art, like Marcel Carné’s 1945 film, Children of Paradise. It is also stated though that Dylan’s Druid-like violinist, Scarlet Rivera—née Donna Shea—took Dylan to see Kiss, which is where he got the idea for this show’s Kabuki-style look.

There’s no way that happened, right? Well it’s not like I have their ticket stubs or anything—but Rivera and Gene Simmons did, in fact, used to date. The Demon formerly known as Chaim Witz acknowledged the connection between Kiss’s stage persona and the 1975 tour about a year ago.

Rubin “Hurricane” Carter: TRUE

Dylan did hastily record and release a single about the New Jersey boxer wrongly accused of murder. Carter’s story was later made into a 1999 film starring Denzel Washington. Incidentally the best thing in Renaldo and Clara—which does not appear in Rolling Thunder Revue—is a series of interviews with passersby on 125th Street in Manhattan about the case, set to Dylan’s tune. Carter emigrated to Canada after his release from prison, and died there in 2014 at the age of 76.

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