Rolling Thunder Revue – A Bob Dylan Story directed by Martin Scorsese (Netflix, 2019)

mv5bzjnlodjmy2qtywi3ms00nmy3ltg0nmitmjayotbiowmyngfixkeyxkfqcgdeqxvynjg2njqwmdq40._v1_The opening shot of this documentary is of a magician in a silent movie manipulating film to create a disappearing act. This illusionist sets the scene for a movie in which not all is as it seems.

It is as though Martin Scorsese has been corrupted by the example set by the incumbent and repugnant POTUS. Scorsese bamboozles viewers with post truths to the point that you are never quite sure of the line between fact and fiction. Beat poet Allen Ginsberg called Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder revue “a con-man carny medicine show of old” and Scorsese is more than happy to play the part of the snake oil salesman.

This unnecessary trickery is a disappointment after the focused triumph of his previous Dylan-doc ‘No Direction Home’ which followed the artist’s remarkable career from his traditional acoustic folk roots as a protest singer to his conversion to a more electric sound with The Band in 1966.

There’s a suggestion that Scorsese is seeking to show how the Revue offered a snapshot of the American politics and culture in the mid-1970s but, aside from a few establishing scenes there is a distinct lack of any more considered analysis.

Instead we get a series of sly deceptions and fake scenes designed more to keep fact checkers busy than to enlighten. We see a certain Stefan Van Dorp claiming that he filmed all the behind the scenes footage although he is actually Bette Midler’s husband, Martin Von Hasleberg. Actor Michael Murphy plays congressman Jack Tanner thrilled to be gifted a ticket for the show from President Jimmy Carter. Dylan himself adds to the chicanery with the tongue-in-cheek suggestion that painting his face white during the shows was a idea he got after watching the band Kiss.

Meanwhile, Sharon Stone plays Sharon Stone, inventing a yarn about being wooed by His Bobness and being told that ‘Just Like A Woman’ was written for her. It doesn’t take much imagination to speculate that Stone stands for similar Lolitta-like groupies willing to hitch a ride on the tour. Of course, such is the deification of Dylan these days that there is never the faintest hint of sexual impropriety. In fact, as with his documentary of George Harrison, Scorsese discreetly skips over any questions regarding the carnal needs and practices of his subject.

The concert footage is the main draw and fortunately the quality is high enough to satisfy even the most demanding of Dylanoholics. The performances are riveting and the intensity of the delivery is a revelation. As Dylan’s never-ending tour drags on, it’s easy to forget why he is still placed high on a pedestal. His powerful rendering of songs like Isis, A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall and Hurricane are reminders of his affinity with language and are plainly not of a man going through the motions.

Obviously, Dylan is the primary focus but in over two hours more time could and should have been devoted to those he shared the stage with. After all, this was billed as a Rock’n’Roll circus not a one-man band.

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Mick Ronson lurks behind Dylan

How, for example, did Mick Ronson get to be part of the posse? From The Spiders From Mars to the Rolling Thunder Revue seems an unlikely switch. The only reference to Bowie’s ex-guitarist is when someone recalls asking him what Dylan thought of him. Ronson alledgedly replied that he had no idea because they had never spoken! There’s a poignant shot of him at an after show party where he is loitering at the back looking like a fish out of water. The role of Ronson is just one of many loose ends that Scorsese has no interest in tying up.

By way of compensation there are some precious (albeit carefully selected) modern day clips of an interview with Dylan that show him to be a perceptive observer of those around him. For instance, he is fully aware of the need to distinguish between true friends and hangers on. Larry ‘Ratso’ Sloman is plainly one of many in the latter category blatantly appropriating Dylan’s mannerisms and style of dress like a real charlatan.

But we also know well enough by now that Dylan plays his cards close to his chest and habitually refuses to answer direct questions. This is how he has miraculously retained his enigmatic position for over half a century. He is hardly about to let the mask slip now but this doesn’t mean you can’t search for some higher truth from other sources.

The reality is that Martin Scorsese has zero interest in separating the man from the myth. On the contrary, the subterfuge and sophistry in this documentary muddies the waters in order to appear deep. Dylan’s defects or inconsistencies are glossed over to ensure his God-like status is maintained. A more honest and truthful approach would have been to present him as a supremely talented, yet fundamentally flawed, human being.

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