Review: Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story (2019)

“When somebody’s wearing a mask, he’s gonna tell you the truth. When he’s not wearing a mask, it’s highly unlikely.” The words were spoken by an unmasked Bob Dylan in the semi-documentary movie Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story. The movie was directed by Martin Scorcese and released on Netflix. Masks symbolize a recurring theme. On his 1975 tour, Dylan takes to stage wearing clown make-up. At times we see him wearing a see-through plastic medical mask. Some of his band mates (which include The Band and a gothy violinist) also take to the stage wearing face paint. Scorcese splices in footage from classic films where actors din masks.

Sharon Stone may have the most on-point anecdote. She met Dylan way back when while wearing a KISS T-shirt. It turns out Dylan is a fan. “I bet Okuni never spit blood into the audience,” Dylan remarks after Stone connects them with Kabuki. Stone is confused. Dylan is referring to one of the founders of Japanese Kabuki theater.

The story, though, is absolute horseshit. One of the quirkiest aspects of Rolling Thunder Revue is how some stories are completely fabricated. It baffled me why you’d approach the story this way, especially since the real story is plenty fascinating. At the time of the bicentennial, Dylan arranged a tour that played in small towns and small venues. Sometimes it was a small dining parlor filled with elderly patrons. Another time he’s performing “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” while walking through pews set up in a gym inside an Indian reservation. He was inspired by Jack Kerouac, even hanging out at his grave with Allan Ginsberg. His touring group also included Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. The tour would eventually conclude at Madison Square Garden, where Dylan would plead for Rubin Carter’s innocence with “Hurricane.” The concert footage is some wonderful stuff, showing an America from a different era that hardly sees the light of day.

Was Allan Ginsberg’s segment so whittled down by the end of the tour that he worked a little as the entourage baggage handler? Did Joan Baez and Bob Dylan really have a soulful heart to heart how they never got married to each other and instead got married to other people? Is the man who filmed all the footage really a strange foreigner who never got along with the group? And the biggest question of all… why even film a “documentary” with so much of it being fiction?

Dylan being a legendary prankster is only part of the story, I think. At least, I get the impression —- as in that anecdote about people wearing masks —- that there’s a purpose to what Dylan is doing even when me’s telling a joke. Part of it is to focus on how wild the reality really is. After all, we live in a day an age where you can google “Rolling Thunder Revue” and you get a list of what was completely fabricated for the documentary (which includes fabricating characters from out of thin air). This leaves the rest of the film, which has a good chance of being real. That remainder is even more spectacular and unbelievable than the made-up stuff.

A more deeper reading is how the movie represents our thoughts as shaped by media. We get footage of the bicentennial, which promotes a glorious America full of proud and unified people. Footage of a man in an Uncle Sam hat giving away Confederate flags puts lie to that illusion fairly early. The “Hurricane” performance puts a nail in it.

But I think the real reason Scorcese and Dylan went this route is a more personal level: to get me to watch it. I’m not a huge Dylan fan. I really can’t understand half of what he’s singing. But a semi-fictional documentary meant to troll the audience that’s directed by one of the greatest filmmakers of all time? I’m used to Netflix releasing movies that come across as movie blockbusters with 1/100th of the budget. Shoot, Scorcese’s The Irishman might be just that. But a movie released to Netflix because the premise is so high concept it was destined never to have that big of an audience in the first place? Well, you finally got my attention, Dylan.

That said… I still do want to know the real reason why you wore clown make-up during the tour.

Rating: 4/5.