Martin Scorsese’s Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story (2019)
REVIEW BY William Luhr, Saint Peter’s University
Martin Scorsese’s Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story (2019) celebrates the Rolling Thunder Revue concert tour of 1975-76. It centers on performance and backstage footage, featuring Dylan and other participants, including Joan Baez, Patti Smith, Joni Mitchell, T Bone Burnett, Scarlet Rivera, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. The film situates the tour within a cultural/historical context, referencing nationally resonant touchstones of the mid-1970s such as the American Bicentennial, the resignation in disgrace of President Richard M. Nixon, the end of the Vietnam War, the attempted assassination of President Gerald Ford by a member of the notorious Manson family, and the popularity as well as political influence of the American evangelist, Billy Graham. Echoing this complex temporal interface, the film presents a prophetic image of the iconic Twin Towers of New York City’s World Trade Center. At the time of the tour, the buildings had recently (in 1973) been completed with great fanfare; but prior to the making of this film, they had been obliterated in a 2001 terrorist attack and their image has subsequently become associated with dark threats to America. While invoking diverse perspectives upon the American Dream, the film celebrates the vitality of a musical community and of small town American life. Dylan drives the bus.
Mixing archival footage and interviews from the tour itself (including outtakes from Dylan’s 1978 film, Renaldo and Clara), footage shot forty years later for this film, and footage gathered from the intervening decades, the movie presents Dylan’s ragtag group as the counter-culture at its most vital. With Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” on the soundtrack registering a yearning to follow a charismatic musician (“Hey! Mr. Tambourine man, play a song for me / In the jingle jangle morning I’ll come following you / Take me on a trip . . .”), the group radiates a sense of carefree troubadours embracing the romance of the open road. Yet not all participants are musicians. The poet Allen Ginsberg declares that they started out on the tour trying to discover America but ended up discovering themselves. Described in the film’s credits as “The Oracle of Delphi,” he evokes the memory of the then (1969) recently deceased Jack Kerouac, most famous for his 1957 novel On the Road, which celebrates road travel as a way of discovering not only one’s self but also America. Kerouac’s book, which includes characters based on himself as well as Ginsberg and other Beat Generation figures, became something of a Bible for the counter-culture, and in the film we see Dylan and Ginsberg reverentially visit Kerouac’s grave. The playwright and screenwriter Sam Shepard, whose works explore mythic resonances of the American West, discusses his involvement, as does singer/actress Ronee Blakley who describes how Ginsberg and fellow poet, Peter Orlovsky, gradually became so marginalized during the tour that they were relegated to little more than baggage handlers. Sharon Stone also describes her experiences on the tour.
The movie appeared in 2019 when a number of events coalesced around Dylan’s public image, including:
The release of a 14-CD box set of material from the tour as well as the November 2019 release of the three-CD package, Bob Dylan (Featuring Johnny Cash) — Travelin’ Thru, 1967–1969: The Bootleg Series Vol. 15.
The October 2016 announcement of the awarding of the Nobel Prize for Literature to Dylan, which became a complicated event that outraged some when Dylan, citing his touring schedule, announced that he would not appear at the awards ceremony, although he did accept the award at a private ceremony in April 2017 and, that June, posted his Nobel Lecture in order to qualify for the $900,000 stipend.
The opening of the Bob Dylan exhibition at the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in conjunction with a symposium on Dylan’s work, along with the official Bob Dylan Archive at the University of Tulsa’s Helmerich Center for American Research at the Gilcrease Museum.
The August 2019 death of the prestigious documentary filmmaker D. A. Pennebaker, whose obituaries noted his influential 1967 Don’t Look Back, which chronicled Dylan’s 1965 tour of England.
The high-profile announcement of the 2020 Broadway premiere of the musical, Girl from the North Country, written and directed by the award-winning Irish playwright Conor McPherson and featuring Dylan’s music.
The announcement that Dylan’s 2019 tour would conclude with a ten-night run at New York City’s Beacon Theater, making it his longest stand at a New York venue since 1962 when he played at folk clubs like Gerde’s Folk City for weeks at a time.
The movie toggles between tour footage and more recent commentary. While doing so, the film often reconceptualizes the nature and significance of the decades-old events, broaching the question of what continuity might exist between the two eras. Both Dylan and Scorsese, in their distinctive and inventive ways, interrogate the meaning of America. The film pursues this interrogation while engaging some avant-garde and transgressive recent trends in narration, representation, and genre.
Martin Scorsese is a prolific and innovative American filmmaker who, in addition to his widely respected feature films, has long been involved with music documentaries, going back to his work as an editor on Woodstock (1970). He has also made movies with and about Dylan: The Last Waltz (1978) which chronicles The Band’s final concert and includes Dylan, and the 2005 American Masters TV documentary, No Direction Home, about Dylan’s development between 1961 and 1966.
Scorsese is best known for his gritty, violent features dealing with twentieth-century urban, criminal American life. They include Who’s That Knocking at My Door (1967), Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), Goodfellas (1990), Casino (1995), The Departed (2006), The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), and The Irishman (2019). His Gangs of New York (2002) depicts nineteenth-century national and ethnic conflicts that underpin the development of modern Manhattan. But his output is extensive and diverse. He explored an independent woman’s struggle in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974); he made New York, New York (1977) about post World War II musicians, Raging Bull (1980) which is a biopic about the boxer Jake LaMotta, and grimly comic films like The King of Comedy (1982) and After Hours (1985). Some of his movies have courted dialogue with earlier films and filmmakers, such as The Hustler sequel, The Color of Money (1986); a remake of Cape Fear (1991); and his Howard Hughes biopic, The Aviator (2004). He has made films engaging religious topics like The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), Kundun (1997), and Silence (2010). When some critics expressed surprise at the gentility of his The Age of Innocence (1993), a nuanced study of the privileged classes in Gilded Age America, Scorsese responded that he did not see it as a deviation at all, that he considered all of his films to be studies of manners among social groups, whether about violent conflicts among Italian American gangsters or the behaviors of the moneyed elite of the late nineteenth century. He has also devoted considerable energy to film preservation projects.
Scorsese’s projects often challenge normative practices of the film industry. In Shutter Island (2010), the protagonist, Teddy Daniels, is a United States Marshall hunting a demented killer. Daniels’ search leads him to Boston’s Shutter Island Ashecliffe Hospital for the criminally insane. Ultimately, he turns out to be the demented killer that he has been ostensibly hunting, destabilizing the reliability of his narrative perspective. At the end, Daniels appears to cooperate with his own imminent lobotomization, in effect erasing the very source of the film’s narration.
The 2019 releases of both Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story and The Irishman represent similar subversions of film genre. The Irishman generated considerable controversy even before its release, since it was largely financed by Netflix and runs three hours and 29 minutes long, generally considered an unmarketable length for a feature film. Although it was featured at the prestigious New York Film Festival and received largely rave reviews, it created a battle within the industry at a time when the very nature of film is undergoing fundamental change. Most movies are no longer shot and distributed on film but by means of digital technologies. Powerful streaming services like Netflix, which has also entered production, are challenging traditional studios and distribution outlets and often winning those battles. As a way of ensuring revenue, theater owners have traditionally demanded a roughly three-month window between a film’s theatrical opening and its airing on television, cable, or streaming services, after which the theatrical revenues have generally declined precipitously. The Irishman had a window of less than a month. Furthermore, much of that film is told in flashback and, like Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story, it challenges the reliability of memory.
From the outset, Scorsese establishes Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story as more than simply a documentary record of a concert tour but as a film with its own cinematic integrity. Even though it was honored with the 2019 Visionaries Tribute Lifetime Achievement Award by DOC NYC, America’s largest documentary festival, the movie never describes itself as a documentary. Scorsese opens by invoking the origins of cinema itself, showing scenes from Georges Melies’s 1896 The Vanishing Lady. That film concerns magic and illusion, which was the focus of much of Melies’s work with the then-new medium. (In fact, Melies appears as a major character played by Ben Kingsley in Scorsese’s 2011 3-D feature, Hugo). But what does a nineteenth-century trick film showcasing cinema’s ability to deceive and dazzle the spectator with illusions have to do with a twenty-first Century film about a concert tour?
Although at first Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story seems to present itself as an entertaining depiction of the tour, some things don’t add up. Since one target audience for this film is Dylan fans and obsessives, and since information about the Rolling Thunder Revue has been available to them for decades, they are likely to come to this movie expecting a fuller, more polished record of the tour than previously available. But from the outset, they are likely to notice inconsistencies in the film’s timeline. For instance, Sharon Stone nostalgically describes her experiences as a 19-year old-invited to join the tour, and particularly her jubilation when Dylan tells her that he wrote a song about her. Later, however, the musician T Bone Burnett informs her that she could not have been the inspiration for the song, since it was a decade old at the time. A cute story about a young woman’s naivete, when in reality, Stone was 17 and not 19 at the time, and there is no record that she was ever on the tour at all. Her amusing recollections are entirely and demonstrably fabricated—in what appears to be a documentary! Fabrications within fabrications. Why did Scorsese include this whimsical material in his celebration of the tour? Why did he expend the effort to create, script, and film it for this project?
More central to the narration are interviews with “Stefan von Dorp,” the filmmaker presented as responsible for much of the tour footage. But no such person ever existed—he is entirely invented, and played onscreen by Martin von Haselberg, a performance artist married to Bette Midler.
Jim Gianopulos, the CEO of Paramount Pictures, describes his challenges in promoting the tour, but Gianopulos never promoted the tour at all. He was in law school at the time.
Michigan Congressman Jack Tanner recounts how President Jimmy Carter got him into a performance of the Rolling Thunder Revue. But Tanner never existed and the event never happened. He is a fictional character played by the actor Michael Murphy, who appeared as Tanner in Robert Altman’s 1988 television campaign mockumentary, Tanner ’88, written by Garry Trudeau.
The fabrications are so numerous that in the very month of the film’s release, on June 12, 2019, Andy Green published an article enumerating many of them in Rolling Stone entitled, “A Guide to What’s Fake in Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story.”
What is happening here?
Traditional notions of documentary posit a genre that strives for an accurate, unmediated recording and recounting of the film’s topic, be it the life of an individual, the significance of an event, the historical plight of a people, or the development of a socio-cultural moment. At least from the 1920s on, the genre has often been associated with political activism and with the presentation of evidence documenting real-world injustice and arguments for social change. However, many contrasting schools of documentary filmmaking have emerged, often with different ideological stances involving the integrity of the image, the soundtrack, the narration, and the authorial presence or absence of the filmmaker. Some documentarians reject voice-over narration as intervening with the “truth” of the depicted events; comparably, many consider recreations of events to be betrayals of an implicit promise of unmediated “truth.” Furthermore, the very nature of the documentary has recently undergone widespread and extensive reformulation, particularly with the advent of digital technologies, and many works currently presenting themselves as documentaries bear little relation to past iterations of the genre.
Presumptions about venues have also changed. Traditionally, documentaries were shown in theaters or in auditoriums. After World War II, television became a major new venue. Currently, much of the energy in the field has shifted to art museums and various video installations, and these new venues have brought with them fundamental changes in narrational practices. Where many traditional documentaries presented closed narratives—a beginning, an end, a clearly focused argument—more recently many have presented open-ended, ongoing, multi-perspectives on their topics. Some of these films seek to immerse the spectator in a new kind of documentary experience, which can be “live” and constantly changing, as with live video feeds simultaneously showing war-torn areas. Those feeds depict what is happening at the very moment that the spectator is observing them and present a constantly changing NOW. Some manifest as “walk through” installations and, rather than presenting a fixed narrational experience, presume a mobile spectator who can focus on whatever they find compelling. Hence the same spectator can experience the “same” documentary presenting different data on successive days.
This disengagement from long-held notions of fixed narration also relates to current practices challenging traditional presumptions about the integrity of the cinematic image—about what we can believe about what we see. Traditional codes of representation are shifting, not only in the documentary genre, but also in fictional films. Dramatic examples appear in recent films by Quentin Tarantino such as Inglorious Basterds (2009) and Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood (2019). Each is set in an identifiable historical time and place—the first in World War II Europe and the second in 1960s Los Angeles. It is nothing new to set films in past eras and present a mix of historical and fictional characters, but the convention has largely been to stick with what popular audiences know about history. In Inglorious Basterds, however, Tarantino depicts the slaughter of Adolf Hitler and his staff in a French movie theater a year before Hitler’s actual death in Germany. In Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, the infamous Manson family prepares to murder Sharon Tate and friends but, contrary to the historical record, the murder is averted.
These more recent examples differ from the common practice of altering character structure or the sequence of events in films engaging historical figures. John Ford’s My Darling Clementine (1946) deals with Wyatt Earp and the O.K. Corral gunfight. Ford knew the historical Earp but his depiction of the fight differs wildly from the historical record. The actual fight lasted roughly half a minute but in Ford’s film it goes on for fifteen. Doc Holliday is killed although the historical character survived. When Ford made the film, those events had occurred in a previous century and were not well known. He tailored them to his notion for the film. But the Tarantino films engage widely known, relatively recent events. Most audience members are likely to see that something is off.
In Rolling Thunder Revue, Scorsese utilizes these new trends in filmmaking, and those trends pair well with many of the narrative strategies Dylan has employed throughout his career. Among these strategies is Dylan’s history of attracting and even encouraging diverse and contradictory perspectives about himself. Dylan speaks of the importance of masks in the interview portion of the film, saying, “We didn’t have enough masks on that tour. . . . When someone’s wearing a mask, he’s gonna tell you the truth.” On the tour, when not wearing a mask, Dylan generally performed in whiteface. In the film, Joan Baez recounts how she once dressed in whiteface to imitate him, and no surprise, the film goes to lengths to suggest Dylan borrowed the idea from the rock band Kiss, who had yet to even adopt that practice at the time. Even before 1962, when he legally changed his name from Robert Allen Zimmerman to Bob Dylan, Dylan had used numerous pseudonyms while performing and recording, and has continued to do so. The pseudonyms include Elston Gunn, Tedham Porterhouse, Blind Boy Grunt, Bob Landy, as well as Lucky Wilbury and Boo Wilbury on the Traveling Wilburys albums. His character in the 1973 Sam Peckinpah film, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, calls himself “Alias.”
Dylan’s history of using pseudonyms and celebrating masks mirrors his career-long pattern of exploring new modes of creativity and even identity, whether shifting from traditional folk music to rock, or causing a stir within the industry by “going electric,” or embracing Judaism or Christianity. He has, in effect, repeatedly invented new Bob Dylans.
Dylan’s invocation of masks, of multiple and changeable personae, is also consonant with the image that many have of him as an American bard, a poet of the common folk attuned to the multifaceted spirit of their nation. Historically, bards have been associated with epic poetry and song as well as the creation and celebration of national myths. Their works, written in the vernacular and hence accessible to everyone, have functioned to celebrate a nation’s vitality and provide a collective sense of identity. The dominant recent tradition comes largely from Celtic-Anglo-Irish-Scottish-Welsh culture, but draws upon earlier traditions. While the stories bards tell may have some factual basis, what is important for them is how they fashion their content into nationally resonant myths. Whether or not Homer accurately portrayed the historical Trojan War is less significant than the image of it he presented in his epic poems. Shakespeare, likewise, has been called the Bard of Avon. In his poetry and songs, Robert Burns, who was called the Bard of Ayrshire, defiantly used the Scottish dialect instead of the standard eighteenth-century English of his era to celebrate the vitality of Scotland‘s disenfranchised classes. In the refashioning of factual data, accuracy is not nearly as significant to these bards as how the work coheres into a resonant myth that evokes a national identity.
A fountainhead figure in American letters for this kind of endeavor is the poet Walt Whitman, who called himself “The Bard of Democracy.” His Song of Myself (1892) celebrates his own individuality hand-in-hand with that of the “self” of America at large. Asserting solidarity between himself and the reader under the umbrella of “America,” he opens the poem, “I celebrate myself, and sing myself, / And what I assume you shall assume, / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” In Part 51 of the poem, Whitman directly and unashamedly addresses the notion of his self-depiction as being so expansive as to contain contradictions. “Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” With Whitman and Dylan, contradictions are no big deal; issues of self and national identity are at stake.
Dylan has long acknowledged his debt to the folk artists who preceded him, particularly Woody Guthrie. Upon agreeing to establish his archives at the Helmerich Center for American Research, alongside Woody Guthrie’s, Dylan said, “I’m glad that my archives, which have been collected all these years, have finally found a home and are to be included with the works of Woody Guthrie and especially alongside all the valuable artifacts from the Native American Nations. To me it makes a lot of sense and it’s a great honor.”
The figures cited above—Guthrie, Whitman, Kerouac, Dylan, and Ginsberg—as artists who present themselves as emblematic of the spirit of America, all continue the bardic tradition. These artists have also given diverse and at times contradictory accounts of themselves, with little concern about such contradictions being particularly significant in light of the breadth, ambition, and social agenda of their endeavors.
Todd Haynes’s 2007 film, I’m Not There, provides a gloss on Dylan’s various public selves. A highly unusual, quasi-biopic in which six actors play diverse personae based on aspects of Dylan’s life, the film describes itself as “inspired by the music and many lives of Bob Dylan.” Dylan himself only appears briefly in concert footage at the end, but manifests in fictional characters at various crossroads and metamorphic moments of personal development. The film’s very notion of character is fluid. Indifferent to traditional boundaries of gender, age, and race, the personae include a woman, a blues-singing African American child, and a burned-out cowboy. The actors include Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Heath Ledger, Marcus Carl Franklin, and Richard Gere (who plays Billy McCarty or Billy the Kid, who rides a boxcar and finds Woody Guthrie’s guitar). Kris Kristofferson narrates the film and Bale’s character is presented as the son of Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, who was a part of the Rolling Thunder Revue.
Despite his roots as the son of a Jewish doctor from Brooklyn, Elliott cultivated the image of a folksy, down home country boy and was known for telling rambling stories. One of his better known performances is “Pretty Boy Floyd” on his 1960 album Jack Elliott Sings the Songs of Woody Guthrie, which presents Floyd as a Depression-Era Robin Hood character in solidarity with the common folk of the land, such as farmers. The song invokes the American fascination with freedom-loving outlaw figures like Floyd and Billy the Kid.
Elliott was a protege of Woody Guthrie. His mastery of Guthrie’s work strongly influenced Dylan’s early career, and the two developed an abiding friendship. In concert, Elliott has even referred to Dylan as “my son.” A useful referent for Todd Haynes’s splintered characterization strategies appears in Kris Kristofferson’s introduction to his 1971 song, “The Pilgrim,” which Kristofferson declares as being in part about Ramblin’ Jack Elliott: “He’s a walkin’ contradiction, partly fact and partly fiction.” This applies to depictions of Dylan as well.
Dylan’s celebration of outlaw figures extends beyond romanticized historical criminals. It includes contemporaneous victims of injustice like the Native Americans Dylan visits and plays for on the Tuscarora Reservation in New York, as well as the boxer, Ruben “Hurricane” Carter. While the film often employs a cavalier mix of fact-based and invented figures and events, it also foregrounds the bracing engagement of an actual, contemporaneous case of social injustice. Dylan performs his 1975 song, “Hurricane,” in concert, and the film also shows recent footage of Ruben “Hurricane” Carter himself expressing gratitude for Dylan’s role in overturning his murder charges after nearly 20 years in prison. Abruptly, then, in the midst of the film’s fabricated and often whimsical stories, Dylan verifiably reengages his protest roots for real-world effect. This sequence comprises part of the whirling narrative mix that incorporates the film’s diverse, often contradictory, approaches to its subject.
Even so, Scorsese’s film does not aspire to present a documentary record of the tour. So what is it up to? A useful model for approaching that complex question comes from what lies at the very center of the film—music and performance. Many of the songs in the film are ones that Dylan and the others have performed hundreds of times. Each time they sing those songs they bring them to life once again, for the present moment. And the present-ness, the very NOW-ness of that performative moment, of necessity changes from concert to concert, and over the decades. The same song performed by the same artist can take on different meanings in different contexts. The artist, who is always performing in the present moment, in the audience’s NOW, knows that he or she needs to make the performance feel new each time, with each activation. Musical performance is neither archeology nor documentary but must always be a present-tense activity. The song might be decades or even centuries old, but each time an artist performs it, it must exist and resonate within and for that moment. That perspective is pertinent to the film’s evocation of the tour.
A further perspective is evident in Scorsese’s engagement with the question of cinematic “truth.” In engaging what appears to be a traditional type of film, a record of a concert tour, he employs a number of avant garde and cutting-edge filmmaking strategies. He presents what appears to be a revival of an old tour in ways attuned to the latest media practices.
Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story never declares itself to be a documentary record, although many might come to it expecting one. Its notion of what it is, is much more fluid and cued by its unabashed use of blatant fabrications. It is not presenting us with settled “fact” but rather creating its own reality for its own NOW, underscored at the outset by the footage of Dylan declaring that the tour “happened so long ago, I wasn’t even born.” What did he mean? On one level, of course, he was simply joking—the film provides abundant evidence of his presence on the tour. But seen from a different perspective, that presence was one from decades in the past, and in the intervening years Dylan has assumed many different masks, different personae as his way of re-inventing himself for changing times and ever-shifting socio-cultural environments. In effect, the film is giving a contemporaneous riff on the long-ago tour, less concerned with traditional presumptions about “accuracy” than with a celebration of the idea of the tour, filtered through memory and the desire to celebrate its legacy (which at times includes impulses toward hagiography).
If Dylan and Scorsese place such little value in factual recreation, why should we? They present compelling performances in a mythic recreation of a past event, one whose significance is retooled for 2019 and beyond. While the tour itself has been described as a financial bust, it has developed a mythic stature, one linked at the film’s end with Dylan’s ongoing touring life, his “Never Ending Tour” since 1988. And he is still touring! The closing credits list his subsequent tours up to 2018—more than 3,000 shows over a 40-year period. They imply that the Rolling Thunder Revue is ongoing and is inseparable from Dylan himself, the artist, his many masks, and their place in the ever-changing myth of America.