“If someone’s wearing a mask, he’s gonna tell you the truth.”
— Bob Dylan
This is not meant to be a review of the new Martin Scorsese documentary, “Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story,” about his 1975-76 tour of small venues that includes fictional scenes shot with actors. The Journal’s Rose Dutton has already reviewed it well. A question remains: Why did Scorsese shoot the film at all? He has already done a straight-forward documentary on Dylan: “No Direction Home” (2005). The original Rolling Thunder “Bob Dylan story” was shot before by Dylan himself and released in 1978 as a hybrid documentary-fiction film called “Renaldo and Clara.” The New England tour gave Bob Dylan a chance to play small venues with a band of friends including Ramblin’ Jack Eliot, Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez.
If Bob Dylan is an acclaimed artist and songwriter, he is not a great actor or filmmaker, and Dylan’s hiring of the late playwright, Sam Shepard, to create a coherent screenplay did not help. In reviewing “Renaldo and Clara” about a man and a woman played by many actors, Janet Maslin wrote: “There’s an insolence about ‘Renaldo and Clara,’ the four-hour film written and directed by Bob Dylan and featuring members of his Rolling Thunder Revue, that is not easily ignored. Mr. Dylan, who has a way of insinuating that any viewer who doesn’t grasp the full richness of his work must be intellectually deficient or guilty of some failure of nerve, has seen fit to produce a film that no one is likely to find altogether comprehensible” (1978).
Part of the problem may be because of Dylan’s nonlinear editing, and none of the musicians were accomplished actors.
As an actor, Dylan is self-conscious, particularly in one scene with his then-wife, Sara Dylan and ex-lover, Joan Baez, acting an awkward love triangle staged in a bedroom. There’s one effective moment when Joan Baez confronts Bob Dylan and cracks his ultra-cool facade.
“Why did you always lie?” Joan asks.
“I never lied. That was the other guy,” a nervous Dylan replies.
“You’re lying now.”
According to Sam Shepard’s book “Rolling Thunder Logbook” (1977), the camera operator and those watching were amused at the “outrageousness of this moment.”
Another problem is that Bob Dylan’s fascinating mystery as a persona and artist becomes less fascinating when it seems pretentious. The concert footage, however, is electrifying, and Allen Ginsberg has some fine moments, including a scene where he and Dylan visit Jack Kerouac’s grave and discuss Keats and Shelley buried in Rome. When Ginsberg points at the gravestone and asks if that’s how Dylan will end, Dylan remarks, “I’ll be in an unmarked grave.”
The question still remains. After the uneven “Renaldo and Clara” and the success of “No Direction Home,” why did Martin Scorsese make this new pseudo-documentary that is not outrageous except for — as one critic declared — its “pack of lies”?
One answer is that this is Bob Dylan, a Nobel Laureate. Why not celebrate the “Old Master” who has outlived so many contemporaries? If “Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story” fades with time, so what? Bob Dylan is the songwriter who wrote, “But even the president of the United States/Sometimes must have to stand naked.” Ultimately, it is Bob Dylan’s enduring music that matters.
Michael Corrigan of Pocatello is a San Francisco native and a retired Idaho State University English and speech communication instructor. He studied screenwriting at the American Film Institute and has authored seven books, many about the Irish American experience.