This article examines Martin Scorsese’s 2019 documentary Rolling Thunder Revue as a crucial and timely formal intervention in documentary film language. It argues that Scorsese has tried to interrogate the ‘truth claim’ associated with documentary films by introducing fake or unreal elements in the narrative. A long practitioner of musical documentary films, Scorsese, seems to have taken inspiration, not only from the tradition of ‘mockumentaries’ (fiction films masquerading as documentaries) but also from the shifting notions of truth in the postfactual mediascape of the 21st century.
Currently streaming on Netflix, the documentary Rolling Thunder Revue (2019) is Martin Scorsese’s postfactual take on Bob Dylan and his 1976 tour of US and Canada.
In Rolling Thunder Revue (2019), Martin Scorsese’s new documentary on singer Bob Dylan, actor Sharon Stone makes a startling revelation. In her interview Stone mentions getting introduced to Dylan and his group while they were on a concert tour in her hometown in the year 1976 and describes her subsequent friendship with him. An aspiring teenage model, Stone recounts, she was attracted to the singer’s talent and charisma and ended up accompanying the group for the remaining part of the so-called ‘Rolling Thunder Tour’.
Dalliances with teenage fans, often legally underage, have been a poorly concealed secret of the testosterone-driven world of American music. But in this case, Stone’s anecdote, along with few other ‘realistic’ references in Scorsese’s film turned out to be fictitious. It is the director’s mischievous postfactual take on the truth-telling power of documentaries – a gag or a joke reminiscent of Woody Allen’s fake documentary Zelig. Allen starts Zelig with a series of fake interviews of real-life celebrities extolling the virtues of his maverick fictional protagonist. However, unlike Woody Allen, Scorsese is not making a mockumentary – as fake documentaries are fashionably called these days. Rather, on the face of it, Rolling Thunder Revue is a conventional documentary about Dylan’s legendary tour of US and Canada in 1976. Sharon Stone was merely enacting a scene planted by Scorsese inside the documentary. The fakery becomes apparent when Sharon claims later in the film that Dylan had told her that the song “Just like a Woman’ was dedicated to her. Stone goes on to add that she realised that Dylan was ‘pulling a fast one’ on her, and the song was written 10 years before they met.
In her fictional account in the film, Sharon Stone is ‘deceived’ by Dylan, and Scorsese is deceiving us – the gullible viewer by contaminating a documentary with non-fiction elements. Why is the master filmmaker resorting to this gimmickry? It prods us to dig the surface of the film, looking for cues and desperate to separate the wheat from the chaff, the credible from the incredible.
“You are telling the truth when you are wearing a mask’ – says Dylan, in the documentary. Throughout the tour, he always performed on stage with his face painted white. It was Dylan’s version of the ‘mask’. In a career spanning five decades Dylan had kept on assuming different persona – a poet, a civil rights activist, a troubadour, an evangelist – his faces are many. Scorsese tries to capture this chameleon-like quality of Dylan by tweaking the documentary form. Formal jugglery apart, this two-and-half-hour long documentary, currently streaming on Netflix, bristles with the rebellious spirit of 1970s counterculture, taking us back to a forgotten episode of American cultural history. We are presented with several blazing on-stage performances by Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell and a host of singers who were part of the Rolling Thunder tour, undertaken by Dylan and Co to mark the bicentennial of American independence. Scorsese commemorates this tour with the compilation documentary put together from archival footage excavated and digitized after 4 decades. This rather long documentary drifts between different events from the tour – performances, rehearsals, jamming sessions, banters and is occasionally punctuated by formal interviews Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and others, recorded in the historical present. These new interviews contextualise and interpret things that happened during 50 days of the tour in 1976. The film’s apparent lack of formal organisation is deceptive. It is more of an artifice meant to lure the audience into a deeper conversation with filmic representation and its limitations. How does a four-decade-old historical material speak to a contemporary cultural context? Scorsese has made a valiant attempt to make the past speak to the present, fake with the real, stretching the boundaries of non-fictional representation in films.
Interestingly, this is Scorsese’s second major film on Bob Dylan. In 2005 he made No Direction Home, which Jeff Rosen, Dylan’s manager invited him to direct. Rolling Thunder Revue gains currency from the director’s familiarity with the subject and his expertise in music documentaries. In terms of filming style, Rolling Thunder Revue harks back to the cinema verité classic Don’t Look Back (DA Pennebaker, 1967) – the spirited ‘fly-on-the-wall’ exploration of Dylan’s 1967 tour of Britain, rather than the restrained ‘talking heads’ approach of No Direction Home. As opposed to the precocious, young 26-year-old Bob Dylan we encounter in Pennebaker’s 1967 film, the Bob Dylan mid-1970s in Rolling Thunder Revue is mellowed, patient and even refreshingly compassionate at times. Particularly charming is violinist Scarlet Rivera’s description of how she was recruited by Dylan literally from the streets while on her way to perform a gig. Apart from Rivera, the film is animated by the presence of the tour mates Joni Mitchell, Sam Shepard, Ronee Blakely, “Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, and of course Dylan’s former girlfriend singer Joan Baez. The chemistry between the former couple unfolds in a curious scene in the film where Dylan chides Baez for marrying someone ‘she thought she loved’. “See, that is what thought has to do with it. Thought will f**k you up…it’s the heart and not the head.” However, it is not Joan Baez, but the poet Allen Ginsburg who competes with Dylan in his gentle yet domineering presence throughout the film. A close friend of Dylan, Ginsburg admired the singer for his ability to write songs, while he could write only poems. Dylan reminisces about various facets of Ginsburg, the poet’s mastery of the form, their shared fondness for author and counter-culture icon Jack Kerouac. In a memorable scene from the film, the duo is seen reminiscing about Kerouac by his grave in Massachusetts, reading their favourite lines from a copy of Kerouac’s “On the Road”.
The film records both a physical and musical voyage – the attempt by Dylan to capture the soul and spirit of America in a crucial period following the end of the Vietnam war. A key to deciphering this intriguing film is probably underlined by the first scene. The film starts with a silent period trick film where a magician, with a sleight of hand, seemingly makes a woman disappear, only to be brought back immediately. Filmmakers, Scorsese is saying, are fundamentally tricksters or illusionists. Film is an art of illusion and documentary, despite its association with truth and reality, is no exception. Today the world around us is so deeply contaminated by untruth that filmmakers need to train audiences by juxtaposing the real with the fake. Scorsese reminds us that the name of the film is borrowed from an indigenous American shaman, and the expression Rolling Thunder means ‘speaking the truth’. If the documentary form does speak the truth, it needs to constantly reinvent its language to remain relevant. In Rolling Thunder Revue Martin Scorsese seems to have attempted just that.
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