Some of the characters and quite a few of the stories in Martin Scorsese’s Bob Dylan film are fictitious. (Netflix)
SPOILER ALERT: if you don’t want to know the truth behind Martin Scorsese’s new film, stop reading now.
Anyone who says Bob Dylan hasn’t got a sense of humour can’t have watched his new movie, Rolling Thunder Revue, directed by Martin Scorsese.
At the Sydney Film Festival audiences were laughing out loud at the characters, the storyline and the revelatory details contained in many of the scenes.
The complicating factor in all this is very simple: some of the characters and quite a few of the stories are completely fictitious.
Only the director and Dylan know exactly what’s what, and the question is, does it really matter?
Martin Scorsese on what inspired him to make Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story
The background you need to know
First up there are a few things you need to know that, to the best of my knowledge, are true.
In 1975, when Dylan set out on the Rolling Thunder tour, his marriage was on the rocks.
Secondly, he’d just released one of his greatest albums, Blood on the Tracks (inspired in part by the break-up).
Thirdly, he was brassed off with the idea of playing to big crowds, in big arenas, and he wanted to re-connect with his audience.
His answer to all this was to take to the road creating a travelling show like a carnival. To do that he gathered a troupe of musicians and artists including Joni Mitchell, Allen Ginsberg, Joan Baez and actor Sam Shepard, along with a first-rate band.
It was in many ways a promotor’s nightmare. Lots of people, lots of venues and smaller audiences. But as Bob makes clear in the new film, you don’t measure success by profit.
Just to add spice to the undertaking, he shot the whole proceedings with a view to making a movie called Renaldo and Clara which, at its heart, was about multiple personalities and illusion.
So the film is a documentary, right?
Jump forward 44 years and now we are presented with the documentary version of the tour.
Or are we?
Early on, we are told the reason we have all the footage is that filmmaker Stefan van Dorp was contracted, way back then, to make a film about the tour in the style of a series of silent movie scenes — but it was never finished.
This of course is a total fabrication. The man being interviewed is actor Martin von Haselberg, who as it happens is married to singer and actress Bette Midler.
It may be an illusion, but van Dorp’s relationship with Dylan becomes a running joke in the documentary, culminating in a scene where the fictitious documentary-maker’s voice asks Dylan for a quick interview and Dylan says “are you still here?”.
At this point the audience at the film festival erupts in horrified laughter, not because it’s a joke but because we think Dylan’s dismissal is real.
The truth and lies keep on coming. The fun part is working out what’s what.
What’s fact? What’s fiction?
A little way into the film we meet actress Sharon Stone talking about how she ended up on the tour.
She was a young model, she tells us. After meeting Dylan, he suggested she tag along. Stone gushes about her time on tour, including one story that casts a very dim light on Dylan himself.
It’s breathtaking stuff. Except Stone wasn’t there, her story is a lie and she never did the tour.
Bob Dylan performing in Los Angeles, 2012. “Life isn’t about finding yourself or finding anything. It’s about creating yourself.” (AP: Chris Pizzello)
I’m not going to go into all the stories, fact and fiction, because it will be fun watching online, playing “spot the fib”.
Suffice it to say there are stories involving senators, secret surveillance and performers with snakes in their rooms.
Dylan, we are told, gets the idea for white make-up after hearing about the band Kiss and going to one of their concerts.
Each story, you realise later, is undermined by some key fact that doesn’t gel.
The truth is, we (the people in the theatre) perhaps should have seen this coming.
Early in the film, Dylan disparages those who talk about “finding themselves”. This, he says, is rubbish and then delivers this telling observation:
“Life isn’t about finding yourself or finding anything. It’s about creating yourself.”
He backs it up by telling the interviewer that if you ask someone wearing a mask a question, he might tell you the truth.
Without the mask, he’ll probably tell you a lie.
Is Dylan’s mask on or off?
Dylan has always been fascinated by masks. He’s also always been fascinated by truth and illusion. They have been his stock in trade.
Remember that for years and years he told stories about travelling America, playing gigs in a strip joint and helping out in the circus.
All tall stories.
Bob Dylan at a news conference in Paris in 1966. Dylan is a master of tall stories. (AP: Pierre Godot)
Dylan biographer Michael Gray said as much in his book, Song and Dance Man.
Gray argues that Bob Dylan was, and is, a persona created by Robert Zimmerman that allowed him to become someone else.
All this raises some big issues. Who is Bob Dylan and can you reveal the truth by telling a lie?
Hoax or truthteller?
There are some who have and will again suggest Dylan is a hoax, he’s not sincere but simply jumps on causes and fabricates stories to maintain his own fame.
It’s a cruel taunt and one that in certain times in his life seems to contain an element of truth, but overall it doesn’t stack up.
Former boxing champ Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter, the subject of Dylan’s song Hurricane, hits the nail on the head when he explains that Bob is always searching.
Asked about Rubin’s comment and what he’s searching for, Dylan avoids the question, saying “I’m searching for the Holy Grail”.
So what’s the point of this movie with its tall stories and fictitious characters interspersed with fantastic performances of his songs, other than pure playfulness?
Well in truth, as you reflect it’s clear so much of this new documentary speaks to the present day.
It would have been easy to make a nostalgic film about a fondly remembered tour.
But this film is utterly contemporary as it tackles issues that go to the heart of modern life.
The film features footage of Richard Nixon from the 70s but it’s hard not to draw comparisons with the politics of today.
This documentary that mixes truth with illusion is in keeping with Donald Trump’s presidency, where lies are reported and the truth brushed off as fake news, all the time leaving us to ask what is real.
Dylan offers a lesson on how easy it is to lie when the audience wants to believe you.
The film reveals that despite his age, Dylan is still relevant, and we should take his advice. “Don’t follow leaders, watch the parking meters” — even if the leaders now include him.
In other words, think for yourself.
Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese is out this week on Netflix.
Mark Bannerman is a journalist and Bob Dylan fan.