How Accurate Is ‘Rolling Thunder’? Martin Scorsese's Bob Dylan Film Loves To Play Tricks On The Audience
Netflix calls Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story By Martin Scorsese "an alchemic mix of fact and fantasy," so viewers tuning in to the auteur's third Dylan-centric project may be wondering how accurate Rolling Thunder really is. Although it relies heavily on archival footage shot during Dylan's "disastrous" 1975 concert revue, there are several fictitious elements weaved into the story. In fact, according to AV Club, the creative team behind the film has been "very cagey" about revealing how much of it is fact versus fiction.
"Apparently, the idea behind these fictional interludes is that they represent Dylan’s prankish side," AV Club notes in its review, adding, "He was known to falsify his personal background, claiming to be from New Mexico rather than Minnesota, and makes a point of noting here, when asked about his facepaint, that someone wearing a mask is more inclined to be truthful."
The review goes on to explain that, unless they're Dylan scholars, most casual viewers probably wouldn't realize which parts of the film are made up unless they read the reviews. So the effectiveness of the so-called "prank" is questionable, at best. But there are some details that can be pinned down as falsehoods.
For starters, the pseudo-documentary's tour filmmaker Stefan van Dorp, who shows up in contemporary interviews complaining that he didn't get enough credit for shooting the Rolling Thunder Revue, is a fictional character played by Martin von Haselberg. Stefan van Dorp isn't a real person, but the Rolling Thunder Revue did have two cameramen on board tasked with filming both the concerts and behind the scenes footage: Howard Alk, who died in 1982, and David Myers. Alk is the one responsible for shooting the archival footage that comprises the majority of Scorsese's film.
Another character in Rolling Thunder portrayed by an actor is Representative Jack Tanner, a Congressman, rumor had it, who was invited to a Rolling Thunder show by then-President Jimmy Carter. He's played by Michael Murphy, who's actually played Tanner before, in Robert Altman's HBO mockumentary miniseries Tanner '88. And the promotor who booked the tour? He's also a fictional character played by Jim Gianopulos, the CEO of Paramount Pictures.
Some of footage from the Rolling Thunder Revue was used in Dylan's 1978 experimental film Renaldo and Clara. But as NPR's review notes of Scorsese's film, "Archival footage is shown out of chronological sequence, and no distinction is made between the scenes Dylan staged for Renaldo and Clara and spontaneous interactions on the road." Additionally, NPR found it odd that "Dylan's longtime right-hand man Bobby Neuwirth and the band's musical director Rob Stoner" weren't interviewed for the film at all, nor were their contributions meaningfully acknowledged.
The most overtly Rolling Thunder acknowledges its creative license is by opening with silent movie footage of a magician performing a trick and focusing heavily on Dylan's preoccupation with masks. (He notably wore white face makeup for performances on the tour.) In essence, everything in Rolling Thunder should be taken with a grain of salt, or at least thoroughly Googled before being treated as fact. But the original footage of Dylan playing with the likes of Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell is worth it.