The clues that there’s something wonky about Martin Scorsese’s new Bob Dylan documentary come quickly but subtly.
In fact, it starts with the pre-title sequence — a turn-of-the-century black-and-white vignette of a magician throwing a blanket over a woman and making her disappear, the cuts clearly visible where the film was edited. The title itself, "Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese” which omits the word “documentary,” raises an eyebrow. But the biggest clue arrives via current-day Dylan himself, when Scorsese asks him about the 1975 tour at the heart of the new Netflix film.
“I wouldn’t say it was a traditional revue, but it was in the traditional form of a revue,” the 78-year-old singer-songwriter says, before scrunching up his face in annoyance and apologizing, “That’s all clumsy bulls---." He continues: “I’m trying to get to the core of what this Rolling Thunder thing is all about, and I don’t have a clue. Because it’s about nothing. It’s just something that happened forty years ago. And that’s the truth of it. I don’t remember a thing about Rolling Thunder. It happened so long ago, I wasn’t even born. So what do you wanna know?”
In 1966, Dylan had become the “voice of a generation,” to borrow a phrase he hated. The megastar’s disinterest in fame coupled with a terrible motorcycle accident in Upstate New York led him to stop touring for several years. Then in 1974, a stadium tour with The Band left him bored and exhausted.
So the next year, he gathered a group of artists, including Joan Baez (a former girlfriend), Patti Smith, Joni Mitchell, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Roger McGuinn, T-Bone Burnett, Mick Ronson, Ronee Blakley, poet Allen Ginsburg, playwright Sam Shepard and more to play tiny venues, mostly around New England. A traveling circus of sorts. As you might imagine, it was the sort of tour that launched rock-and-roll myth upon rock-and-roll myth -- especially, so with a troubadour-in-chief like Dylan, who wore a be-flowered bowler hat and white facepaint through his performances, singing with a punk rocker’s anger and insistence.
Scorsese’s documentary plays into this very mythos by presenting a whole lot of fiction as fact. It’s probably unlike any music doc you’ve seen before, because a good bit of it is completely fabricated nonsense.
It’s an interesting way to explore Dylan, a man who would often obscure details of his life — pretending to be from New Mexico, for example, instead of his native Minnesota. “Life isn’t about finding yourself, or finding anything," he tells Scorsese in the film. "Life is about creating yourself, and creating things.”
Here are the four biggest stories they created.
The filmmaker Stefan van Dorp
The “documentary” includes a great deal of behind-the-scenes tour footage supposedly shot by European filmmaker Stefan van Dorp. In one interview, van Dorp claims that Dylan was imitating him when he started holding his cigarettes “the European style” (between the middle and ring finger).
No, van Dorp is not a real person. Martin von Haselberg, a performance artist and Bette Midler’s husband, portrayed him in the film — and the footage comes from “Renaldo and Clara,” a four-hour movie by Dylan and Shepard that mixed concert footage with vignettes they co-wrote. Many of the fictional bits featuring Dylan and Baez come from the 1978 flop.
Sharon Stone and Dylan’s affair
In the documentary’s most compelling and surprising sequence, Sharon Stone tells a story about going to see the concert, at 19, with her mom, both of them as Dylan’s personal guests. As the actress tells it, she was wearing a KISS shirt, which prompted a conversation about Kabuki. (Dylan intimates that he wore white face paint to imitate Gene Simmons.) Stone says she later joined Dylan on the tour, and the two hint that they had a love affair.
“It was one of the first shows. I was backstage. Joan Baez had asked me to iron her shirt. I hear, ‘Hey, Sharon.' And there was this really decrepit old piano shoved off to the side, and Bob was kinda hunched over it. And he gives me that look. He’s like, ‘I wrote a song about you,’” Stone recalls. That song? “Just Like a Woman.” When he gets to the line “She makes love just like a woman / But she breaks just like a little girl,” Stone says she “just broke out crying in tears.”
“I think it was T-Bone who told me the song was [already] 10 years old,” she adds.
Sure, this one is technically impossible to disprove, but we can pretty much assure you it’s false. For one, the tour didn’t stop in Stone’s hometown in Pennsylvania. Secondly, she would have been 17, not 19. Third, there’s literally never been a mention of the two until this documentary. Fourth, she and Scorsese have a history of working together, notably in the 1995 “Casino.” And fourth, when the Wrap reached out to her for comment, she replied (in this format):
"You can trust Marty Scorsese to make the best movie possible
And everyone in it to have been it in because of our genuine
relationships with Bob and Marty
And what they mean to each of us
And that piece remains private to us all
As it did prior to the film”
Rep. Jack Tanner, a huge fan
The film gets political when Rep. Jack Tanner (D-Mich.), “one of the youngest members of the Congress,” is interviewed talking about how an establishment politician like himself entered the world of Dylan (who was “considered the enemy") Stranded at a hotel in a small town where Dylan happens to be playing, Tanner has his friend Jimmy Carter gives Dylan a call to have him added to the guest list.
This, obviously, is completely fabricated. Cinephiles will immediately recognize Tanner as a fictional character from Robert Altman’s “Tanner ’88,” a mockumentary skewering American elections. That’s actually actor Michael Murphy, who also appeared in “Manhattan,” “M*A*S*H” and “Magnolia.”
Jim Gianopulos, concert promoter
A great deal of the doc is based around interviews with Gianopulos, who is presented as the concert promoter who helped conceive of and book the tour, all the while wishing Dylan would still play stadiums. There’s a good chance his name sounded slightly familiar, though most viewers probably just assume he was someone who often comes up in rock docs.
He’s not. Gianopulos is the CEO of Paramount Pictures. Before that, he was the chairman of Fox Filmed Entertainment. He had absolutely nothing to do with the tour.
Why is he in the movie? As with everything else we mentioned, we have no idea.