How True Is ‘Rolling Thunder Revue’?
In 2004, M. Night Shyamalan was on his way to becoming the most famous and admired director of his generation. People were fascinated with his life and history. Where did he come from? What inspired his bold genre movies? The desire for those answers inspired the Sci-Fi Channel to hire documentarian Nathaniel Kahn to investigate Shyamalan and report his findings. He discovered all kinds of shocking things, including the fact that Shyamalan died for a brief time after a drowning incident as a child. Afterwards, he found he could communicate with the dead.
At least that’s what Kahn’s film, The Buried Secret of M. Night Shyamalan, claimed. In reality, the whole thing was a fake, and clever (if misleading) attempt at viral marketing for The Village passed off as a legitimate documentary. The whole charade blew up in Sci-Fi’s face though after they convinced the Associated Press that the film was authentic and they reported its findings as fact, claiming that what began as a “benign profile” eventually “went sour.” In the ensuing uproar, the network had to participate in a second AP article, where they admitted they had made the whole thing up.
Martin Scorsese and Netflix haven’t gone quite so far with Rolling Thunder Revue, but I couldn’t help but think of The Buried Secret while watching it. At one point, the trailer for Scorsese’s new film describes it as “the real story of what happened” on Bob Dylan’s legendary 1975 and 1976 tour with a loose assemblage of musicians including Joan Baez, Roger McGuinn, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and Joni Mitchell. The key word there, though, is story. Much like The Buried Secret of M. Night Shyamalan, Rolling Thunder Revue is an amusing piece of mythmaking disguised as a work of documentary. It’s not quite This Is Spinal Tap — obviously Dylan and his Rolling Thunder Revue tour are quite real — but it’s probably closer to that sort of film than a lot of casual viewers are going to realize. I suspect a fair percentage of people are going to watch this on Netflix without ever realizing a bunch of it is made up.
Scorsese wasn’t present for the Rolling Thunder tour back in the 1970s; he assembled Rolling Thunder Revue from concert footage, along with clips and outtakes from the fictional movie that Dylan himself made during that same period, the rarely-seen Renaldo and Clara, There are new interviews with many of the participants, including Dylan himself, supposedly talking on camera about his work for the first time in a decade. in the very first clip, he admits “I don’t remember a thing about Rolling Thunder! It happened so long ago, I wasn’t even born.”
Not an auspicious start for those hoping to find Dylan in a reflective mood — and perhaps a clue that when Dylan sporadically pops up throughout the film talking about this or that, he’s not completely on the level. So’s this pointed comment he delivers early on: “Life’s not about finding yourself. It’s about creating yourself.”
There is a lot in Rolling Thunder Revue that is created, and not in the editing room by the careful compilation of old documentary scenes. Robert Altman fans will chuckle at the appearance by Representative Jack Tanner, supposedly a Congressman who attended a Rolling Thunder show at the personal invite of President Jimmy Carter. The story is plausible, but the storyteller is not; Tanner is actually the great character actor Michael Murphy, reprising his role from several Altman works, including Tanner ’88.
There’s no indication that Murphy is playing a character except in the closing credits, where he’s billed under his real name. But his presence alone is enough to make you reconsider everything that’s come before — and to make note of how much of the movie emphasizes masks (like the one Dylan wore on stage during many Rolling Thunder shows) and stage personas (Dylan slatered white paint on his face throughout the tour, supposedly inspired by seeing Kiss in New York City, although who really knows). The very first images of Rolling Thunder Revue are not of Dylan, but of a magic trick from an old Georges Méliès silent film of a magician making a woman disappear. He’s practically telling you this is all an elaborate trick.
There are more examples of trickery too. Within Rolling Thunder Revue, the archival footage is credited to a European filmmaker named “Stefan van Dorp,” who supposedly convinced Dylan to let him record the tour in order to make a film about America. But a quick Google search reveals Stefan van Dorp does not exist, and in the closing credits the role of the director is credited to performance artist Martin von Haselberg. (At Rolling Thunder Revue’s world premiere, “van Dorp” even appeared to introduce the film, although he stormed off stage when Scorsese appeared.) Meanwhile, the promoter who supposedly booked the “disaster” of a tour is played by Jim Gianopulos, who’s really the CEO of Paramount Pictures.
The only thing that is undisputedly real in Rolling Thunder Revue are the musical performances, which are among the best of Dylan’s career. Playing with theatrical intensity and a passionate voice, Dylan sounds great. The suspicious, darting looks he give his band during songs like “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” and “One More Cup of Coffee” say a lot more than any of his sly, evasive interviews.
It might have been nice to hear Dylan sincerely talk about his motivations for wearing white face paint or for playing the folk and protest songs he had abandoned for a decade at that particular point in his life, or even why he chose the name Rolling Thunder Revue (several different explanations are offered in Scorsese’s film, none of them any more plausible or definitive than any others). But that’s not the kind of guy Dylan is, then or now. He prefers to keep his secrets buried.
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