If you think you have an idea of who Bob Dylan really is, then you definitely don’t.
That is just one of many reactions I had to Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story, the remarkable new Netflix film directed by Martin Scorsese.
Telling the story of the Dylan’s legendary 1975-’76 tour, the “documentary” splices vibrant live performances together with incredible behind-the-scenes footage capturing deeply intimate moments between Dylan, Patti Smith, Allen Ginsberg, Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez and others. Additionally, there are contemporary interviews with a number of characters, including Dylan’s first on-camera interview in well over a decade.
It’s a long, strange and impressionistic trip that plays with the mythology that has long surrounded the Rolling Thunder tour, and in this fervent fan’s humble opinion, it might be the most beautiful and revealing Dylan film ever (and there are many). It’s also chock full of pure, fabricated bullshit.
If you’ve already seen the movie, you’ll remember Stefan van Dorp, the difficult director who supposedly captured all this priceless footage? Well, turns out he’s a made up character (played by Bette Midler’s real-life husband Martin von Haselberg). That story with actress Sharon Stone and the KISS sweater? It never happened. How about the cartoonish concert promoter or the young congressman stuck between two worlds? They didn’t exist.
While there are clues and surreal moments, nothing in the film explicitly tells you this is fake, making it purposefully misguiding. And if you didn’t read any articles surrounding it you could very easily walk away thinking the story they tell is the truth and the whole truth.
In Dylan’s defense, the film begins with him trying to explain what the tour was about, before interrupting himself and claiming, “That’s all clumsy bullshit… I don’t remember a thing about Rolling Thunder… It’s just a thing that happened 40 years ago.”
Of course, this is all completely in line with what Bob Dylan does. Going back to early interviews, where he stubbornly evaded questions designed to pin him or his music down, he has always rejected the idea of a singular truth. And to exercise this point, he has consistently muddied the waters with his own words and work.
A few years ago, the power of the Internet revealed that Dylan’s 2004 memoir Chronicles: Volume One, contains a multitude of stolen and altered passages, lifted from novels, poems, articles and songs. (For example, his description of Johnny Cash turned out to be a loosely plagiarized character description from a Jack London book). Whether or not Dylan expected anyone to discover what he had done, such an act reveals that the mythic life of Bob Dylan is just that, a myth, constructed and obscured by the even more unknowable artist beneath the white face paint.
In the case of the film and the book, once you learn that elements of the story are not true, you start questioning the truth of everything, which I’d like to think was part of the point.
So what is Dylan (and his accomplice Scorsese) trying to do by distorting the truth? Is he augmenting the Bob Dylan myth, as he’s always done? Is he saying something about the deceitfulness of memory and the foolishness of trying to tell an accurate history? Is he fucking with us for the fun of it?
If you know something about Bob Dylan, you can guess it’s probably all of the above and more, but you’ll never know for sure.