Is Martin Scorsese’s Partly Fictional ‘Rolling Thunder’ Still a Documentary, for Awards Purposes?

bob dylan rolling thunder revue
Courtesy Netflix

Sharon Stone got an Oscar nomination for appearing in one Martin Scorsese film, “Casino.” But could her cameo in one of his latest pictures help derail his shot at a nomination for that film this year?

The movie in question is not “The Irishman,” the film that’s seen as a leading Oscar contender, but “Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story,” which had a lot of heat when it premiered in a handful of theaters and on Netflix in June. It was seen at the time as offering the possibility that Scorsese could get nominated for two films in one year.

But as many unaware viewers and critics came to realize that they’d been hoodwinked by a few mischievously fictional scenes in the Dylan doc, the question arose: Was it, in fact, a documentary — at least as far as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences would be concerned?

The short answer is: yes. The film academy announced in November that “Rolling Thunder Revue” was among 159 full-length documentaries submitted for the 92nd Academy Awards. Voting has wrapped up for a documentary category shortlist of 15 contenders that will be announced Monday, so we’ll know soon enough whether Scorsese’s film made the first-round cutoff.

If anyone is wondering why the Academy welcomed a film with completely made-up sequences into their non-fiction category, there’s an answer for that too.

AMPAS defines an eligible documentary as “a theatrically released nonfiction motion picture dealing creatively with cultural, artistic, historical, social, scientific, economic or other subjects. It may be photographed in actual occurrence, or may employ partial reenactment, stock footage, stills, animation, stop-motion or other techniques, as long as the emphasis is on fact and not on fiction.”

No one would argue that “Rolling Thunder” isn’t mostly factual, and thus fits the Academy’s not-too-stringent guidelines. But whether documentary branch voters will enjoy the director having taken substantial liberties in telling his “Bob Dylan story” or hold it against him is another matter.

If the Grammy Awards’ best music film category can sometimes be seen as a bellwether for what rock docs might have a shot at the Academy Awards’ documentary division, those nominations could be considered the first bad news Scorsese has received in a while. “Rolling Thunder Revue” was left out in the cold there, taking a back seat to such anointed contenders as Paul Thomas Anderson’s collaboration with Thom Yorke on the short film “Anima,” “20 Feet From Stardom” Oscar winner Morgan Neville’s multi-part profile of Rick Rubin, and such straightforward music films as Stanley Nelson’s “Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool” and A.J. Eaton’s “David Crosby: Remember My Name.”

Going in, Scorsese’s unconventional film about the musician’s star-packed 1975 tour of small east coast and Canadian venues appeared to have a leg up among prospective Grammy nominees. In 2006 the Oscar-winning filmmaker received a Grammy for his first documentary about Dylan, 2005’s “No Direction Home,” which followed the Nobel Prize-winning singer-songwriter’s life and career through 1966. It was feted in the best long form music video slot, the predecessor to today’s best music film category.

With an eye toward awards season, Netflix began screening “Rolling Thunder” again in September. T Bone Burnett, a 13-time Grammy winner (and a member of Guam, the band that backed Dylan and his featured vocalists on the Revue), hosted one unspooling at Netflix’s Hollywood HQ.

The Grammys’ definition of a “music film” is liberal enough to admit even a neither-fish-nor-fowl proposition like “Rolling Thunder Revue” to the party. The category recognizes concert or performance films or music-related documentaries that are performance-based. Movies with fictional elements are eligible for the award. By that measure, the Recording Academy’s failure to recognize the film does not harbinger well for its Oscar chances.

While “Rolling Thunder Revue” – which was described in pre-release publicity, somewhat accurately, as “part documentary, part fever dream” – very generally fits the Oscar category’s prerequisites, Scorsese’s picture may color too far outside the lines to be considered a documentary at its heart. Several critics, including Variety’s own, noted the copious liberties taken in this film about an artist who has always evinced a casual relationship with facts.

Among the narrative elements of “Rolling Thunder Revue” that either perplexed or enraged some observers are the film’s interviews with people who did not actually exist. These personages included European film director and documentarian Stefan van Dorp (actually actor and one-time performance artist Martin “Harry Kipper” von Haselberg) and Michigan congressman Jack Tanner (in reality Michael Murphy, reprising his role from Robert Altman’s 1988 HBO mockumentary miniseries “Tanner ’88”).

Some of the real people interviewed are fibbing, apparently to add an element of fun, if not obfuscation, to the film. Paramount Pictures chairman/CEO Jim Gianopulos had no role in promoting Dylan’s 1975 tour, and actress Stone did not take part in the tour as a 17-year-old KISS fan.

Actual documentary footage is manipulated for the purposes of the film, as well. “Rolling Thunder Revue” ignores the existence of “Renaldo & Clara,” Dylan’s calamitous, long-unseen 1978 feature, a mega-flop four-hour behemoth which combined copious Rolling Thunder performances with sub-Cassavetes improvisations by the director, his musicians and others, as well as footage shot backstage and by the side of the road. The latter material is frequently employed in Scorsese’s film with the voice of “van Dorp” dubbed in, making him a counterfeit presence in the proceedings.

Some “Renaldo & Clara” dramaturgy is employed as if it is documentary footage. In Dylan’s ’78 movie, the musician portrays “Renaldo,” while Joan Baez, his paramour of the early ‘60s, plays “the Woman in White,” a prostitute of unknown national origin. In one exchange between the characters, the woman asks, “What do you think it would have been like if we’d gotten married?” Renaldo replies, “I don’t know. I haven’t changed that much.” Taken out of context and used in “Rolling Thunder Revue,” this dialog is presented as a real-life moment and presented side-by-side with straight documentary material. Other sequences similar straddle the boundary between fact and pure fiction.

One has to look back decades, to such features as Peter Watkins’ “The War Game” (1966) and Walon Green’s “The Hellstrom Chronicle” (1971), to find films with fictional elements that took home the best documentary feature Oscar. Thus, in light of Wednesday’s Grammy shutout, the chances of a double-barreled “Irishman”/“Rolling Thunder Revue” win for Scorsese at February’s Oscars ceremony would now appear to be at best a very distant long shot.

Why’d he go off the reservation with the made-up elements — enraging some fans, and delighting others who see it as playing with persona and perception in much the same way Dylan often has? The director explained it in an interview with the British Film Institute published this month.

“Once we had ‘Rolling Thunder’ constructed,” Scorsese said, “David Tedeschi [the editor] and I looked at it, and I said, ‘It’s conventional. IIt’s just a film about a group of people who go on the road and they sing some songs. I’m going to have to start all over.’ We have to go with the music, maybe, go with the spirit of the commedia dell’arte. And then the words started to come in about possibly people who weren’t there, being there. [Laughs] That’s interesting. That’s a challenge, as they say. Let’s pursue that.

“Let’s say Sharon Stone represents certain things. What about the businessman, the marketing man? And that’s Jim Gianopulos. And Irwin Winkler, my old friend, they started Chartoff-Winkler, they were agents for famous musicians in the 60s. So why don’t we not stop there? What about the filmmaker? Great. And he had to be taken advantage of. [Laughs] He possesses the performers, he wants to be them. It’s like us, making this… we love the music and the performers so much that the only thing we can do is photograph them and edit it, right? And we wanna be them. And no matter what, we’re left wanting more.”

What’d Dylan think of it? Scorsese said he hadn’t heard from his subject — whom he hasn’t met with since well before he started work on his first Dylan doc.

“I’m good friends with his producer and archivist Jeff Rosen, and Jeff is the one,” said Scorsese, referring to the manager who is believed to have done the interviews with Dylan for the films. “Last time I saw Dylan was at a big dinner for Armani, 20 years ago. I met him a few times with Robbie Robertson. That’s about it. But I do enjoy doing the films. They’re almost impossible, and it’s like working out, in a way, creatively, in that it’s not a matter of making the story of a tour. Who cares? It’s capturing a time and place.”