Except for the Four Fakers aspect, Martin Scorsese‘s Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story was pretty much a purely pleasurable experience for everyone who saw it during the summer of ’19. It’s been on Netflix ever since, of course. And now Criterion has a 4K Bluray version coming on 1.19.21.
What’s my richest musical recollection from Scorsese’s doc? Easy — Joni Mitchell playing the then-recently composed “Coyote” for Dylan, Roger McGuinn, Gordon Lightfoot and others at Lightfoot’s home during the tour. The clip, originally shot for Dylan’s misbegotten Renaldo and Clara, is on YouTube, of course. “Coyote” would go on to open Mitchell’s 1976 album Hejira but was in the early stages while Mitchell was performing on the RTR tour.
From “The Four Fakers,” posted on 6.10.19: To my mind the only serious problem with Martin Scorsese‘s Rolling Thunder Revue doc is that he includes four phony talking heads among several real ones, and thereby violates the trustworthiness that we all associate with the documentary form, and for a reason that strikes me as fanciful and bogus.
The doc acquaints us with 22 or more talking-head veterans of the tour (Dylan naturally included) but among this fraternity Scorsese inserts what Toronto Star critic Peter Howell is calling the “four fakers” — made-up characters portrayed by real, recognizable people.
Sharon Stone, who was 17 when the Rolling Thunder Tour was underway, seems to be speaking as herself but she’s actually “playing” The Beauty Queen. At first Michael Murphy seems to be speaking from his own perspective, but then you realize he’s playing The Politician. Actor-performer Martin von Haselberg (the husband of Bette Midler) plays The Filmmaker. And Paramount chairman and CEO Jim Gianopulos portrays The Promoter.
Some of what they say to the camera might be factually correct in this or that anecdotal way, but it’s all basically bullshit — made-up, written-out or improvised recollections that are performed for a chuckle, for the hell of it.
Scorsese explains his decision to include the four fakers in the press notes: “I wanted the picture to be a magic trick. Magic is the nature of film. There’s an element to the tour that has a sense of fun to it…doing something to the audience. You don’t make it predictable. There’s a great deal of sleight of hand.”
Who says RTR was driven by a sleight-of-hand, put-on mentality? I never heard that before. I thought it was about keeping it real, small-scale, people-level, driving around in a small tour bus, passing out pamphlets, etc.
Scorsese’s doc isn’t some fanciful, mask-wearing thing. 96% of it is just footage of Dylan’s ’75 Rolling Thunder tour throughout New England intercut with visual-aural references to what life was like back in the mid ’70s. The fact that it contains invented testimony from four fleeting fakers doesn’t dilute the basic composition. Perhaps the four fakers idea came from Scorsese’s regard for Italy’s Comedia dell’arte tradition.
Exasperated, I wrote an email to Toronto-based film and music critic Peter Howell, who actually attended an RTR concert in Canada at age 19 and reviewed the concert for a Toronto daily.
Wells to Howell: “Did you feel that the RTR show you witnessed was ‘a magic trick…[with] an element to the tour that has a sense of fun to it…doing something to the audience, unpredictable, sleight of hand,” etc.? What the fuck is Scorsese talking about, ‘sleight of hand’? What the fuck does that actually mean? Sounds like gibberish to me.”
Howell to Wells: “It’s total gibberish. What annoys me about this, actually depresses me, is that the Rolling Thunder Revue wasn’t some kind of scam or magical stunt by Dylan. I was there. I saw the show. I read all the reviews and interviews. It was seen at the time as a sincere attempt by Dylan to get back to his musical roots, as an antidote to the giant stadium tour of the year before. He seemed to believe this. Dylan says in the film the RTR wasn’t a moneymaker, just a great musical event with the sideshow altruism of trying to free Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter from an unjust jailing.
“That’s how I took it in at the time. Sad to think that Dylan and Scorsese are now making it out to be a colossal con job to show how cool they are and to keep the fans guessing. Remember when we thought of Dylan as the real deal, a guy who would speak truth to power? Now he seems determined to convince everybody that he never really meant or cared about most of what he did and sang about.
“This reminds me of these lines from “Like a Rolling Stone”: ‘You say you never compromise / With the mystery tramp, but now you realize / He’s not selling any alibis / As you stare into the vacuum of his eyes / And say, ‘Do you want to make a deal?’ / How does it feel?…’
“Answer: It feels lousy.”
Howell passed along a link to Larry Sloman‘s original report on the Rolling Thunder Revue for Rolling Stone. Sloman “comes across as a clown in the movie,” Howell writes, “but this is a solid piece that proves the RTR wasn’t some ‘sleight of hand’ affair.”
HE Bottom Line: Scorsese decided to get creative — to step outside the usual documentary box — by having Stone, Murphy, von Haselberg and Gianopulos tell “tall tales” to the cameras. Marty got bored and decided to have a little fun…okay. But on another level I’m feeling fairly angry about this. It seems to come between me and what the RTR was really about.