When luminous imagination
Wrapped Truth in Fiction’s airy fold,
Then life’s blood flowed throughout creation,
And, wavelike, o’er its limits rolled.
-- Friedrich von Schiller, “The Gods of Greece” (1788)
I swear I remember this: When I was 4 years old and my parents put Elvis Presley’s “Love Me Tender” on the record player, I would burst into tears and cry through the whole song. Then I’d drag my little red chair over and stand on it so I could reach inside the Victrola, replay the tune and weep again.
My response to The Rolling Thunder Revue, A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese -- sobbing ecstatically on and off for 142 minutes -- is thus deeply rooted in my past. But the movie’s music, performed fervently in 1975 and remixed brilliantly by Tom Fleischman four decades later, will make many sensitive viewers bawl. We identify with a woman shown at an outdoor venue on Dylan’s tour who seems blissful when the concert ends but who, as the camera lingers, begins to cry her eyes out. From joy and from shock. Inexplicably and understandably at the same time.
The paradoxical coexistence of impenetrability and clarity is a hallmark of Scorsese films. Their complexity is the reason I need to watch each of them several times before I’m fully open to their gifts.
Thus it wasn’t until my third streaming of the Rolling Thunder Revue that I began to grok why it packed such an emotional punch, and to treasure it even more. Partly my take is personal and subjective: not only am I a lifelong Bob Dylan fan, the motion picture captures a moment in pop culture that coincides with a time of profound change in my life. It also features a concert I attended on the last night of the tour – “The Night of the Hurricane” in Madison Square Garden – the memory of which I cherish.
But even viewed objectively, the film is stunning. Dylan’s performances, as distilled by Scorsese, have more soulful power than in earlier portraits; the singer’s charisma rivals that of Muhammad Ali. His voice is like a well-tuned klezmer fiddle, his dancing like a rock ‘n’ roll Astaire.
The band -- which features such heavyweights as Roger McGuinn, Joan Baez, Mick Ronson, Scarlett Rivera, Ronnie Blakeley, T-Bone Burnett, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot and Bob Neuwirth – would attract us even without their headliner. And to ice the cake, Dylan brings a few geniuses along for the ride: Allen Ginsberg. Sam Shephard. Patti Smith. Oh my God, Patti Smith!
Now I’m well aware that genius can be a vague designation, and the term is often used hyperbolically. But it doesn’t have to be. Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer described it with great precision: “Talent,” he wrote, “hits a target no one else can hit. Genius hits a target no one else can see.”
The word’s Latin root, genitus, means “bringing into being, creating, producing.” Scorsese demonstrates this “bringing into being” with footage shot at the The Rolling Thunder Revue’s birth. In it we see Patti Smith at Gerde’s Folk City, a small Greenwich Village club, aim for a target none of us –- not even her fellow-musicians – see. Spinning a tale about an archer in love with his sister, she releases her own arrows wildly, risking absurdity, as poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti says, until she finally homes in on her quarry and brings a truly unique song to life. It becomes a heartfelt chant, an explanation of what it means to be an avant-garde artist: “I live in another dimension,” Patti boldly intones over and over.
Rolling Thunder’s next genius – Allen Ginsberg -- also appears in the Folk City footage. Later, when the odyssey is well underway, we see him with Dylan at Jack Kerouac’s grave, where they recite favorite passages from On the Road to one another. We see how moved both men are, two decades after the book’s publication, by the purity and originality of Kerouac’s seminal Beat writing. Again, genius drawn to genius!
And, yes, I cry tears of joy. My poet heroes unabashedly adoring my first literary idol! Scorsese’s film draws us into intimate moments in a way that engenders profound connection and affirmation; thus we’re deeply moved.
Sadly, we watch Ginsberg’s role on the tour reduced to five-minutes per show, as audiences seem to want more rock, less poetry. But Dylan eloquently describes Ginsberg’s cultural impact and, no doubt, the reason he wanted the beat bard to be part of his Rolling Thunder caravan: There are very few American poets quoted by the general public, says Dylan. “Walt Whitman and Robert Frost come to mind, and Ginsberg is in that exclusive group.” Driving his point home, Dylan recites the opening of “Howl:”
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an
Rolling Thunder’s third genius (the fourth, actually, including Dylan) is Sam Shephard. Scorsese intercuts an interview with Shephard, in which the groundbreaking playwright discusses being asked to script a film about the tour, with footage of a character named Stefan Van Dorp, created out of whole cloth just for this Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese. In reality, it was Dylan who engaged Shepherd, a genius enlisting the aid of a genius.
Such ersatz documentary scenes give the movie its duality, its simultaneous clarity and impenetrability. The fiction footage doesn’t announce itself as such, visually or tonally. So one of the delights of multiple viewings comes from “cracking the code” -- from discovering why the director scripted and staged scenes with actors for this non-fiction movie.
And I think, after my third streaming, I unraveled the mystery. Before I explain, allow me to digress.
Even orthodox practitioners of cinema verite know that by choosing a particular lens, by stealing a reaction shot or a sentence from one part of the narrative and using it in another -- by editing, for goodness sake – they manipulate reality. They present cinema truth, not scientific truth. Scorsese simply goes a bit further than most, enhancing the film’s simultaneous clarity and its impenetrability.
Indeed, much of Rolling Thunder is a meditation on the nature of cinematic illusion. The film opens with Georges Melies’ Vanishing Lady, an 80 second short in which a magician makes a woman disappear. But its “invisible” jump cut is visible; Melies splices a take in which the woman’s dress protrudes from a blanket that’s been thrown over her to one in which, obviously, there is no dress. Scorsese, like Orson Welles in F for Fake, tells us, without words, that his movie will sometimes deceive us, but if we watch carefully we’ll experience the delights of being in on the gag and of seeing non-literal but undeniable truth.
Just as exploring illusion is essential to this complex rendering of a simple tale – the story of a seventies rock ‘n’ roll tour – so is examining memory. The director and his editors, David Tedeschi and Damian Rodriguez, use stock footage to recall how commercial and pompous the US bicentennial celebration was at times. Nixon pontificates about it from the Oval Office, as does Gerald Ford. We see a boat parade in front of the Statue of Liberty and a vendor hawking cheap patriotic memorabilia.
The clip selection is intentionally messy. Nixon resigned the presidency in1974, two years before our nation’s 200th anniversary. And the first leg of Dylan’s tour – the part Scorsese documents – ended in December 1975, seven months before the July 1976 hoopla. Yet nearly half a century later we spin these cultural markers – Watergate, the bicentennial and Rolling Thunder -- into an oddly cohesive concoction. That mishmash is sort of the way we remember it.
The 2017 winner of the Nobel Prize for literature claims not to recall the 1975 tour at all. “It was forty years ago,” he says with a wink and a nod. “I wasn’t even born yet.” But in fact, four decades ago Dylan was in his thirties and now he remembers plenty.
Even if he doesn’t, he has material that was shot for his 1977 movie, Renaldo and Clara, to refresh his memory. There are stunning portraits of geniuses in masks and whiteface, touring the country like medieval troubadours. But there’s no footage from that time of the quotidian aspects of the tour.
Which brings us to why Scorsese hired actors to play scripted characters and shot them in period documentary style:
Back in 1975 Dylan wanted to make a motion picture about a bunch of poets and visionaries – beatific minstrels – masquerading as a touring rock ’n’ roll band. But without more familiar images of rock on the road – a promoter with his eyes on profit and loss, an artsy documentary filmmaker, a groupie – the difference between Rolling Thunder and, say, a Rolling Stones tour, wasn’t effectively dramatized.
So Scorsese created such imagery decades later and integrated it with mid-seventies cinema verite material. His first invented character, mentioned above, is Stefan Van Dorp. Played without a hint of self-consciousness by actor Martin von Haselberg, he describes a seemingly acid-driven party at Allen Ginsberg’s during which Dylan began to copy his (Van Dorp’s) “European style” of holding a cigarette. Scorsese bolsters the veracity of von Haselberg’s tale by intercutting it with footage of the singer/songwriter’s hands in Vulcan salute around what we used to call “cancer sticks.” We smile, realizing, slowly, that Van Dorp’s story was made up after he saw the clip.
And, yes, I well up a little… for the love of motion picture editing!
Some critics have likened contrivances such as Van Dorp to those of “mockumentary” filmmakers. But mockumentaries --the seminal This is Spinal Tap, for instance -- are entirely fictitious and their tone is satirical. Most of Rolling Thunder’s footage is non-fiction, and its fabricated stories, while fun, are meant to give us insight into the gulf between a touring band of inspired geniuses, on the one hand, and the daily grind of rock road shows, on the other.
Just as Van Dorp is a contrivance, so is the tour’s promoter, brought to life by Paramount executive James Gianopulos. Through him, we see, with some humor, the business side of touring. And he says things about the music business that a real, circumspect promoter might not. The late Bill Graham (who appears briefly in the film) would never have shared what the made-up impresario does: the tour’s chaos along with its hidden expenses and paper bagsful of cash, hallmarks of the music business, at least in the 1970’s. And his chat has the ring of truth.
Finally, Sharon Stone plays a version of herself created just for The Rolling Thunder Revue, A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese. She embodies the character as well as Stephen Colbert embodies Stephen Colbert. As well as Dylan embodies an array of personae named Bob Dylan.
The movie’s conceit is that Ms. Stone, a teenage model in 1975, joined the tour with her mother, simply tagging along. We’re told that Ms. Stone was dating a member of Kiss at the time and took Dylan to watch the band play a high school dance in Queens. Did Kiss inspire Dylan’s use of white face during Rolling Thunder? Or was 17th century Kabuki his inspiration? Or 16th century Commedia dell’arte? Scorsese’s interviews with Dylan and with Sharon Stone provide contradictory answers.
The dichotomy between non-fiction sections of film, which show Bob Dylan most at home in the company of poets and trailblazers, and its new, scripted footage, shot in the style of cinema verite and depicting Rolling Thunder as a tour like any other, suggests that Dylan’s use of face paint has a richer, deeper theatrical lineage than whatever motivated Kiss (none of whose members ever dated the real Sharon Stone).
Again, contradiction. Complexity. The pleasures of a Martin Scorsese picture!
Non-scripted interviews with Dylan suggest that his makeup functioned as a mask, allowing him to create a new version of himself on stage. This is, after all a film about Bob Dylan, who changed his name from Robert Zimmerman and arrived on the scene from a middle class university milieu claiming to have run away from home when he was eleven and lived the life of a depression-era hobo. Featuring would-be Okie Ramblin’ Jack Eliot, son of a Brooklyn dentist. And ranch-hand Sam Shephard, who became Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Sam Shepherd.
For Dylan, the idea that you can express yourself most truthfully when masked may go back to his earliest reading of Ezra Pound (Remember him? The guy fighting T.S. Eliot in the captain’s tower?) or even Robert Browning. Both poets -- as shown in Pound’s collection Personae and Browning’s Dramatis Personae – spoke through “masks,” assuming the personalities of various characters (historical or imaginative) in in their dramatic monologues.
Dylan, by the mid-1970’s, was writing intricate first-person narrative songs like “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” and “Tangled Up in Blue,” as well as the confessional songs “Sarah” and “Oh Sister” from the character Bob Dylan’s point of view. As the singer/songwriter points out in Rolling Thunder, artists are more likely to reveal their true selves from behind a mask.
And this brings us back to Rolling Thunder’s music. It was amazing to hear it performed live back in 1975, and to feel it with 18,000 fans. There’s nothing like a live performance.
But Scorsese’s documentary simulates that experience as well as any ever made, at times even surpassing it. His own The Last Waltz eschews audience cutaways; we viewers never leave the intimate company of the performers on stage.
In Rolling Thunder, the intimacy is intensified. Staying in the close two-shots, close-ups and extreme close-ups originally conceived by Dylan for Renaldo and Clara, often without cutting, Scorsese creates the feeling that Dylan is singing directly to us. Directly to me! He’ll have “one more cup of coffee” with me! “Spend some time in Mozambique” with me! He’ll give me “shelter from the storm.”
So sometimes, watching the movie, I cry tears borne of deep connection. But there are also “Love Me Tender” tears – cathartic ones generated by the overwhelming vibrancy of music made from the heart.
And there are, finally, tears of nostalgia, borne of fondness for times, referred to above, of big change in my life. When I saw Dylan in whiteface in Madison Square Garden on “The Night of the Hurricane,” playing character after character as he sang, I was in the midst of undertaking my own re-invention. I had traded my college student identity for that of filmmaker. I no longer lived in college digs in a college town. I had an apartment with my girlfriend in New York City, with a fireplace and exposed brick (albeit on a slummy sort of block)! I was becoming a denizen of galleries and museums and very cool bookstores and concerts. Playing all the roles in daily life I’d always wanted to play. Always feeling like a Manhattan sophisticate, never like Mr. Jones from the outer boroughs.
Having, much to my parents’ disappointment at the time, chosen the life of an artist over that of a suburban lawyer, I found myself more emotionally open than I’d ever been, and able to dip more deeply into the well of my imagination. On the path chosen for me I would have been reading tort law. On the one chosen by me I read Cortazar. Miller. Genet. I listened to Dylan.
The Rolling Thunder Revue connected the 1975 young adult me to the confused 14-year-old kid me hiding out in my room playing the grooves off a mono pressing of “Blonde on Blonde”. There was Dylan onstage, tangled up in blue. Staying up all night in the Chelsea Hotel. Knowing his song well.
It was more riveting -- more transcendental -- than any rock show I’d seen. More moving than The Who performing “Tommy” at The Met! Than Hendrix at The Singer Bowl! Yea, than Beatles at Shea!
The Rolling Thunder Revue, A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese captures that transcendental quality with poetry and perfection. The look and sound of its music (thanks, again, Tom Fleischman) make our ears gateways to our hearts. And the picture’s ideas –- about self-creation and masks and illusion – have played and continue to play a huge role in my life as a filmmaker.