History has a way of settling into place when looked upon retrospectively. Given enough time and enough revelations, what seems to be one reality can become another when viewed through this lens. Martin Scorsese’s recently released film about Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Review tour could have been that — had Scorsese not manufactured a significant chunk of an alternate narrative. The result of this particular attempt to editorialize history is kinda messy.
Starting with what’s legit about the film, the footage that was shot (by Howard Alk) during the actual tour captures the spirit of that moment in time. As Dylan, Joan Baez, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Roger McGuinn, Scarlet Rivera, Joni Mitchell, Ronnie Hawkins, Allen Ginsberg, Sam Shepard, and a large entourage toured the country with their stylized minstrel show, from 1975-76, there was plenty going on. First, there was an all-star musical line-up doing a cross-country trip on a bus (that Dylan enjoyed driving), which yielded great concert footage and behind-the-scenes moments. Next, there was the question of whether this tour comprised something deep and spiritual for the participants, who — to varying extents — looked for the soul of America in financially devastated towns, in the wake of the country’s bicentennial celebration; or whether it represented what happens when promoters put a bunch of famous artists and random misfits on a bus tour to try to make a few bucks.
Additionally, Alk captured various Dylan spin-off episodes, such as: visiting with Rubin “The Hurricane” Carter in jail, writing the song “Hurricane,” and lobbying for Carter’s release; and a scene in which Dylan and Ginsberg read poetry over Jack Kerouac’s grave, while remarking that Kerouac wrote a lot about being dead. Had the tour (and its side missions) been all the film centered on, it would have made a nice companion to Bob Smeaton’s Festival Express, which documented the Canadian train tour of the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, The Band, Buddy Guy, and others.
Rolling Thunder had plenty of brilliantly captured moments through which the viewer could have meditated upon the integrity of the artist / poets in contrast with their sycophantic circles and / or in contrast with the interests of the tour promoters. However, and this is where the narrative gets complicated, in the process of adapting Alk’s footage, Scorsese manufactured additional “historical” content. This includes: an interview with a fictitious senator, who talks about how Jimmy Carter introduced him to Dylan; an interview with Sharon Stone, who recalls a fictitious relationship with Dylan; an interview with a fictitious filmmaker, whom is credited (within the film) for having shot Alk’s footage; and others.
During the tour, Dylan wore white make-up smeared upon his face. At another point, Baez dressed like Dylan (with white make-up smeared on her face), but that’s another story. The point of face-painting is addressed through a new interview with Dylan that is used to punctuate the film. As he reflects back, somewhat elusively, Dylan says, “When somebody’s wearing a mask, they’re going to tell you the truth.” Presumably, Scorsese uses the mask concept to tell his story with its fictional components, and, assuming we trust Scorsese, this may provide a nice way to get as detailed as possible about some historical incidents while protecting the names of the innocent.
Prior to the existence of sound and film recording technologies, history has always been determined by what has been written. In all probability, this also means that most of history, as is commonly spoken, “…is written by the victors.” Certainly, minority accounts exist; however, in the United States, high school history teachers do not typically champion the concept that all westward expansion was tantamount to the abduction, rape, and murder of the original American people — another theme of Rolling Thunder, which is addressed not only through the title of the tour [it is named after a charlatan, who claimed to be a Native American spiritual leader] but also through a stop Dylan makes to an Indian reservation, where he performs “The Ballad of Ira Hayes.”
However, by contextualizing Alk’s period footage within a manufactured framework, questions inherently arise. The film is marketed as a documentary, but it is really more of an experimental film. Moreover, by presenting it as a documentary, the distinction between reality and fiction is blurred, and in this day and age of rampant false narratives, this may not be a responsible choice. Admittedly, the theme of the mask is introduced as a means to communicate underlying truths, but without providing clarity about the narrative framing, the end result (and point of the exercise) is purposefully left to the interpretation of the viewer. So, if you’re looking for a light-hearted rock ‘n roll story, get lit and enjoy; otherwise, the film is a straight up puzzle.