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Why Did Martin Scorsese Prank His Audience in ‘Rolling Thunder Revue’? Even He May Not Know

On June, 10, a couple of nights before “Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese” dropped on Netflix, I attended an event for the movie following its premiere at Lincoln Center. At the party, I got to sample reactions to the revelation that roughly 10 minutes of Scorsese’s back-to-the-’70s rock doc consists of prankish fake-documentary footage, like something out of a Christopher Guest movie.

It wasn’t hard to gauge the reaction, since in just about every case, when I asked people what they thought about the fakery, that was the very first they’d heard of it. (Unless you have extra sensory perception, you’re going to buy what this movie shows you.) Most of the people I spoke to were wide-eyed with disbelief yet kind of bummed. Over and over, they said that they felt duped, suckered, maybe even a little betrayed. Of the 20 or so people I had conversations with, not one said, “Really? That’s kind of cool!” The fakery left no one with that Andy Kaufman feeling of awe. And this was a crowd of people who were disposed to like the movie, many of them with two or three degrees of separation from Martin Scorsese. The question I kept getting was, “Why did he do it?”

It’s the question I kept asking myself. I had seen the film a couple of weeks beforehand, and had written a review of it that bought into most of the fakery — though it was obvious, even when I saw it, that one part of “Rolling Thunder Revue” was total fiction: the interview with Jack Tanner (Michael Murphy), a character I remembered well from Robert Altman’s three-decades-old HBO series “Tanner ’88.” I knew that the presence of Jack Tanner was a lark, but even so, I couldn’t wrap my head around Scorsese’s reason for putting him in there.

I got wind of the rest of the fakery from a fellow critic who’d learned about it, and was able to change those parts of my review at the last minute. I learned that Stefan van Dorp, a cranky Eurotrash experimental filmmaker who was hired, back in the ’70s, to direct a Rolling Thunder Revue doc that never got made (he’s interviewed in the film, and does nothing but complain), is a fictional character played by Martin von Haselberg, who happens to be Bette Midler’s husband. (Aha! So that explained why I spent an exasperating hour trying to confirm van Dorp’s name for my print editors, and couldn’t find one mention of him on Google.) I learned that Jim Gianopulos, the CEO of Paramount Pictures, had not been the Rolling Thunder Revue tour promoter, strolling through parking lots with bags of cash. And I learned that Sharon Stone, who describes in the film how, as a teenager, she attended one of the concerts with her mother and wound up tagging along on the rest of the tour, becoming a floating member of the backstage party, was never near the Rolling Thunder Revue.

In the movie, all this stuff is executed with deadpan drollery, in a spirit of high malarkey, that sounds harmless and fun. And maybe it is. Yet the fact that I was nearly seduced into palming off a blatant fabrication as fact kind of bugged me. It rubbed up against my journalistic instincts and made me bristle. I didn’t feel delighted — I felt played. And the fact that I liked the rest of the movie so much didn’t mitigate the irritation; if anything, it only increased it. Scorsese, working with mountains of footage from the Rolling Thunder Revue tour, had crafted a burbling, live-wire, turbulently vital portrait of Bob Dylan in the mid-’70s that felt kaleidoscopic in its authenticity. The movie puts you right on that tour, letting you brush up against the look and mood and spirit of a by-gone era. The film’s time-machine purity is its calling card. How, exactly, does making shit up fit into that?

I had my own theories, starting with the obvious one: that Dylan himself was a famous purveyor of images that weren’t real. He was a Jewish kid from Minnesota who sold himself, early on, as a hardscrabble folk singer. He’d tweaked his persona nearly as often as the Beatles, and on the Rolling Thunder Revue tour, in case we missed the point, he performed onstage in white-face mime make-up, as if putting a mask on over the mask. Who was Bob Dylan? As Todd Haynes caught — brilliantly — in his 2007 Dylan fantasia
“I’m Not There,” Bob Dylan was whoever he wanted to be, and whoever we wanted him to be. Protest singer, electric rocker, cowboy hermit, post-counterculture divorce casualty (and yes, that was another conscious image: the subject of Dylan’s greatest album, “Blood on the Tracks”), and now roving hippie troubadour. Dylan was an artist who made himself up as he went along.

And that, in its way, was the inner spirit of the ’60s and early ’70s. This was the kickoff to the Age of Speaking Truth to Power, but one of the premises of the psychedelic carnival of the ’60s, as well as the grand dilapidated sex-drugs-and-rock-‘n’-roll party that followed, is that the corporate powers were so full of baloney that there were times when you couldn’t, in fact, speak truth to the Man. You had to put him on. You had to bamboozle him with the lie he deserved. (Otherwise he couldn’t hear you.) If you want to know what that sounds like, watch any interview Bob Dylan gave to the press in 1965.

Yet it’s a long way from 1965 to now, and the other grand put-on of our society — the one we currently live with every minute of every day — is the fakery of politics that’s really showbiz, and of showbiz that pretends to be authentic. Scorsese, in the fake bits of “Rolling Thunder Revue,” may think that he’s paying a kind of homage to the shell-game ethos of Bob Dylan, but he’s also playing catch-up to the “reality” era, in which everything we see pretends to be authentic and probably isn’t. On social media, people let fly with their “real” opinions (which are generally some fusion of what they think, what they think they’re supposed to say, and careerist positioning). Reality TV is an epic and cheesy hall of mirrors. Even “serious” political debate is now a nightly entertainment narcotic, and has been for a long time.

So here’s Marty, doing his bit to join the contemporary cult of put-on reality. But the way he does it, as a friend of mine said, “It seems more Trumpian than Dylanesque.” Fake news, as we’ve learned, is more than just a lie. It’s a virus that infects the truth around it. You no longer know what to believe. Thinking back on “Rolling Thunder Revue,” I recalled that “the promoter” (who doesn’t, in fact, exist) discussed certain financial aspects of the tour. An important dimension of the movie is that the Rolling Thunder Revue, in all its helter-skelter vibrance, was a financial disaster. Was that part of what the promoter said? (I couldn’t remember.) And, if so, was it in fact true? (It seems true, but that isn’t the same thing.) The existence of the fake promoter was tugging at one strand of the movie and threatening to unravel a larger part of it.

There’s a crasser way to look at all this: that Scorsese, on some level, was courting publicity with his fake-news documentary gambit, and that he got it. The fact that Sharon Stone is even in the film is a marketing hook, and the idea that “Rolling Thunder Revue” is an effusive ’70s rock doc fused with a Christopher Guest parody of that same doc sounds like a cagey aesthetic strategy. That it’s subtitled “A Bob Dylan Story” hints at the notion that reality, like Dylan himself, is a kind of “construct,” and that Scorsese, in an uncharacteristically ha-ha way, is rolling with the thunder of that perception.

But here’s the real reason I think he did it, even if it may be unconscious on Scorsese’s part. The key piece of fakery in “Rolling Thunder Revue” is clearly the Sharon Stone subplot. It takes up a larger portion of the film than anything else that was fabricated, and it’s the one lie in the movie that spins around the central truth of our time: the preeminence of celebrity. Part of the mystique of “Rolling Thunder Revue” is that Scorsese, in assembling a movie out of this mid-’70s footage, is going back to one of his own most fabled periods — the era of “Taxi Driver” (a movie he was in the final stages of working on during the first months of the Rolling Thunder Revue tour), when he became, more than any other filmmaker alive, the rock-star icon of the New Hollywood.

The ’70s were about an unprecedented freedom that allowed for things like “Taxi Driver” and the Rolling Thunder Revue tour. But they were also about how that freedom could lead to an excess that caved in on itself. That, by his own admission, is what happened to Scorsese when he made “New York, New York” (1977), fueling his creative vision on cocaine, flying too close to the sun of excess. Scorsese has never stopped talking about that period, and about how it nearly destroyed him. And while the ecstatic-nightmare drug tales are long behind him, the reason I think he has stayed fixated on that period is that once he emerged from the other side of it, he became a different kind of filmmaker. He stayed vital, and he triumphed (in “Raging Bull,” “The Last Temptation of Christ,” “GoodFellas,” “Cape Fear,” “Shutter Island,” “The Wolf of Wall Street”). But by necessity, he became part of a new Hollywood machine.

In “Rolling Thunder Revue,” the presence of Sharon Stone embodies the spirit of that machine. She has always been a good actress (probably better than many know; just watch her in “Casino”), but her fame will forever rest on a certain crudely riveting but debased high-budget exploitation thriller. And though they have brutal violence in common, the spirit of “Basic Instinct” is not the spirit of Martin Scorsese. It’s the spirit of the Hollywood that Scorsese has spent the last 40 years fighting to keep his place in. In “Rolling Thunder Revue,” he inserts “Sharon Stone,” like a meme (or Zelig), into the age of raggedy creative freedom without a safety net. In pretending, with a wink, that Stone might have been part of the Rolling Thunder Revue tour, he’s having a laugh, but he’s also fantasizing about connecting the two eras, bridging the two worlds of his filmmaking life: the wild and pure meets the corporate and celebrity-driven. He’s imagining that they could somehow be one. Of course, he’s also saying: What a joke.

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