When Robert Allen Zimmerman left the isolated enclave of Hibbing, Minnesota in 1959, his ambition to explore the depths of rock n’ roll and folk required him to distance himself from the fleshy, Jewish son of an appliance store owner. He was reborn a year later as Bob Dylan, with a carefully constructed, and deliberately ambiguous personal history that would be essential to his mission of expanding the American musical lexicon.
In the Netflix film Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story director Martin Scorsese explores the mythology of celebrity and the artificial creation of memory. Combining footage of Dylan’s 1975-76 tour with anecdotes from people involved with it, Scorsese documents the songwriter’s return to significance and the restoration of his reputation as a socially conscious artist during an era of heavy political cynicism after the Vietnam War.
Well… not exactly. Early in the film, a patriotic Richard Nixon extols the virtues of America as the nation prepares for the Bicentennial in 1976. It is a curious choice of video clips as it actually dates from 1969. Nixon was no longer President at the start of Dylan’s tour or for the anniversary celebrations; Nixon had been toppled from power in ignominious disgrace in 1974. In fact, the clip is a foretaste of Scorsese’s playful tampering with time and context.
Musically, Dylan’s two album releases of the period, Blood on the Tracks (1974) and Desire (1975) provided much of the material for the tour and represented something of a musical comeback. Dylan’s retreat from public life following his 1966 motorcycle accident and his subsequent foray into country music alienated an audience that might have forgiven him for going electric but could not stomach his appearance on a Johnny Cash variety show. Ditching his long-time collaborators The Band for a ragtag group of musicians including ex-Byrd Roger McGuinn, David Bowie guitarist Mick Ronson and the mysterious violinist Scarlet Rivera, Dylan took the stage in white theatrical makeup and clothing evoking Leonard Cohen’s ode to the mysteriously clad Suzanne.
While Dylan’s onstage performance is remarkably emotive and the boys in the band are more than capable of rocking out, Rivera steals the show. Like Dylan, the former Donna Shea of Chicago distanced herself from her prosaic Midwestern origins, providing otherworldly violin fills and solos to a musical chameleon who enjoys confounding his audience with new interpretations of his classic songs.
Along the way, Scorsese introduces Director Stefan Van Dorp, the stylish video chronicler of the original tour, Jim Tanner, a politician and close friend of future President and Dylan aficionado Jimmy Carter, and actress Sharon Stone, who served briefly as a teenaged roadie on the tour after meeting Dylan following a concert.
Their anecdotes are reflective, detailed and heartfelt. And entirely made up. Stefan Van Dorp is actually Martin Van Haselberg, singer Bette Midler’s husband, while Tanner is actually actor Michael Murphy, whose character first appeared in the Robert Altman film Tanner ’88. As for Sharon Stone, while she might have been a Dylan fan, she was not nineteen as the film suggests, but actually seventeen and the photo of her impromptu signing session was carefully photoshopped. Adding to the confusion are the wild stories of garrulous tour promoter Jim Gianopolus, the current chair and chief executive officer of Paramount Pictures. The tour would have been difficult for him to organize in 1975 while he was a law student at Fordham University in New York City.
Rolling Thunder Revue is fascinating partly because it dares to play with our penchant for false nostalgia and invented memory. For example, while millions claim to have attended the Woodstock concert festival in 1969, the real numbers was closer to 400,000. Kids roll their eyes at their parents’ anecdotes of feckless youth meant to prove that dear old mom and dad were once more than bland, conventional providers of food and shelter. By playing with the audience’s sense of reality, Rolling Thunder Revue parodies the tendency to view the past as somehow simpler and better, unsullied by online harassment, environmental Armageddon, gender and racial conflict, and corrupt politicians lifted directly from the crassest and most base elements of society.
The truth is that, in addition to the hangover from the Watergate scandal and Vietnam, the 1970’s was the decade when the Equal Rights Amendment was defeated, there were race riots over busing in Boston, and cities so dense with pollution that, if Polaroid had had a selfie feature, you’d see subjects swathed in fog rather than enjoying their vacations.
The film’s ultimate success lies in its main subject. In addition to being a mythical songwriter and performer, Dylan reminds me of the famous F. Scott Fitzgerald quote, “There are no second acts in American Lives.” He has never provided a satisfactory ending to his career, as it has been one of perpetual reinvention. He’s been a folk icon, protest singer, rock and roller, country singer, born again Christian, Zionist, painter, poet, actor, and finally a Nobel laureate.
True devotees have long forgotten the anger they felt each time he confounded them by changing styles without their permission. In making Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story, Scorsese destroys the tired musical documentary trope of the artist who rises from raw youth to the pinnacle of success only to fall into self-indulgence, failure, and ultimate redemption. By brazenly combining fact with fiction, he acknowledges the rose-colored lens through which we mythologize our past and the celebrities we love.