In a world where cries of “Fake news!” are themselves often fake, we have reason to be wary of tricksters and grifters, of snake-oil salesmen and rambling preachers. But we can always trust Bob Dylan, a career card sharp whose deck is a stack of half-truths, full truths and outright fabrications perpetually being reshuffled. His whole career has been an invocation to pick a card, any card: Which Bob Dylan did you get today? Only sometimes is he the Jack of Hearts. There are 51 other possibilities, and that’s not even including jokers.
Martin Scorsese’s delightful and wily possible-documentary Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese, made for Netflix, gives us a good half of those Dylans, and probably more. It’s the most truthful movie you’ll see in 2019, because it swears on nothing but the Gospel of Bob, and in more than 50 years of singing, songwriting and much, much touring, he has never promised us anything beyond pleasure and illumination. That means he has never broken a promise, not even when he went electric in 1965, in Newport—hardly a betrayal, that was just Dylan being busy being born. In late October 1975, Dylan began a ramshackle tour designed to bring his music to smaller auditoriums, where he could play “for the people.” Scorsese’s film is a sort-of document of that roughly seven-month tour, undertaken by Dylan and a ragtag bunch of performers including Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Roger McGuinn, as well as Allen Ginsberg and mystery-woman violinist Scarlet Rivera.
Rolling Thunder Revue blends tour footage—plucked from Dylan’s 1978 weirdo epic Renaldo and Clara—with contemporary interviews, anchored by Dylan himself, the Bob Dylan of today. His hair is a grizzled tumbleweed tuft; he wears one of his signature bolo ties and a riverboat gambler’s jacket with black spangles on the lapels. Early in the film, an off-camera interviewer asks him about the meaning of the Rolling Thunder Revue. “I don’t have a clue,” he says. “It’s about nothing, it’s just something that happened 40 years ago. I don’t remember a thing about Rolling Thunder—it happened so long ago, I wasn’t even born.”
Liar, liar, pants on fire. Just about everyone knows Dylan was born in 1941 as Robert Allen Zimmerman, of Minnesota. Why would Dylan tell such an outlandish lie? Why would he not? That’s barely the beginning of Scorsese and Dylan’s hoodwinkery: The two are like mischievous twins, playing jokes on mom. It’s unusual to see Scorsese, as a filmmaker, cut up this way, and it’s wonderful. (Scorsese previously directed the 2005 American Masters documentary No Direction Home: Bob Dylan, as well as, of course, The Last Waltz, which chronicles The Band’s farewell concert and features an appearance by Dylan—one of the finest rock’n’roll documentaries ever made.)
The footage used in Rolling Thunder Revue is, we’re told, the result of the toil and insufferable suffering of a filmmaker named Stefan Von Dorp, hired to tag along and cover the tour offstage and on. On camera, the Stefan Von Dorp of today moans, groans and complains about what a dreadful, thankless experience it all was. It turns out that Stefan Von Dorp is completely made up—another lie! Appearing in the credits as The Filmmaker, he’s played by Martin von Haselberg, of the performance-art duo The Kipper Kids.
Who can ever believe another word Bob Dylan—or, for that matter, Martin Scorsese—ever tells us? Only those who cling to the illusion of Earnest Bob Dylan, the “spokesman of his generation” who wrote protest songs like “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Masters of War.” But his other half—or should that be three-quarters?—the Trickster Bob Dylan, has been with us practically since the beginning too. Dylan has always been elliptical, not just political. Elusive, elfin, sometimes a little mean: That was the Dylan of D.A. Pennebaker’s 1967 documentary Don’t Look Back, and here he is again, scowling from the stage during the Rolling Thunder performances and also speaking to us in the present day. Dylan will not be romanticized. There is no performer, and few personalities, who are as simultaneously uningratiating and charismatic as he is.
The Dylan of Rolling Thunder Revue is a surly troubadour in eyeliner and patchy white face paint, which was possibly, or quite probably not, inspired by the stage makeup worn by Kiss. He skitters through a honky-tonk version of “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall”; he croons “A Simple Twist of Fate” at what appears to be a senior center. (A box set of music from the tour is set to be released in conjunction with the movie.) Joining him on the tour, and often onstage, are violinist Rivera (modern-day Bob insists she traveled with a trunk full of mirrors and swords and other weird stuff), poet Ginsberg (a chubby sunbeam, so filled with light he’s got extra to spare), and Dylan’s erstwhile wife and lady love Baez. As a gag, she duplicates his makeup and trademark Rolling Thunder uniform, which comprises a jaunty plumed hat, a flowy neck-scarf and, inexplicably, a rather fancy-looking watch.
Because even Bob Dylan, man of legend, might now and then need to know what time it is. And why the white makeup, as well as, at one point, an actual see-through plastic mask? As present-day Dylan explains, with stellar clarity, the man in the mask is the one who’s going to be telling you the truth.
Which doesn’t mean he’s not going to now and then be pulling your leg. Other interviewees and participants in Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story include Sharon Stone (who, as a teenager, joined the touring troupe…maybe), notorious Rolling Stone writer Larry “Ratso” Sloman and Ronee Blakley, the songbird of Robert Altman’s Nashville, and a songbird here, too. This chronicle of a rare and marvelous traveling circus, which came and went in a flash just as America was celebrating its 200th birthday, is 100 percent believable, which is not the same as 100 percent true. But there’s a time to surrender to pleasure and illumination, and now is definitely one of those times. In Bob we trust.