Saturday, July 20, 2019

“When somebody’s wearing a mask, he’s gonna tell you the truth” -- Martin Scorsese tells "a Bob Dylan story"

[Here’s a short piece I did for Reader’s Digest, about the new Scorsese film on Bob Dylan. Feel a tad sentimental about my first ever byline in Reader's Digest – given how stacks of these magazines always seemed to be around the house when I was growing up, and also given that my mother used to read them quite regularly]

On the Netflix menu, you’ll find the wrong title for this film. It is missing an important first word: “Conjuring”, which appears just after jerky black-and-white footage of the magician-filmmaker Georges Melies performing a trick onstage. It’s the first pointer to the legerdemain in the “pseudo-documentary” we are about to see, a film so playfully unreliable it may remind some viewers of Orson Welles’s F for Fake.

(Conjuring the) Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese unfolds like a concert film about Dylan’s 1975 Rolling Thunder tour, which aimed at making the singer and his troupe (plus celebrity guests like Joni Mitchell) accessible to small-town America as the nation celebrated its bicentenary. But this is also a sleight-of-hand exercise where fiction and fact merge in unsettling ways. “Being with Bob was like looking into a mirror – you saw what you wanted to see or you hated what you saw,” we hear early on, from someone named Stefan van Dorp, who was supposedly on the tour. But here’s the rub: Stefan is a fictional character, played by an actor just for this documentary. And the story that actress Sharon Stone tells about her meeting with Dylan as a 17-year-old… that’s made up too. These are things you probably won’t realise unless you are steeped in Dylanology, or unless you have read up on this film. That’s what a viewer is dealing with here.

What is the purpose of this? One answer is that Scorsese is addressing the unknowability of Bob, the unknowability of artists, the way ideas and people change over time, how we build and destroy idols. And what better subject for such an exegesis than Dylan, who has always been so elusive, so frustrating to fans and followers who thought they had him slotted? Scorsese himself went into that terrain with the 2005 documentary No Direction Home, and it’s also worth remembering that the best feature film about the legendary singer-songwriter was the 2007 I’m Not There, in which six actors (including a woman, Cate Blanchett) played different versions of Dylan.

But one is left with a mild suspicion that this material didn’t need such a convoluted, nudge-wink framing story. We have already had so many ironical perspectives on Bob Dylan over the past few years that one yearns for a straight documentary with authentic behind-the-scenes footage. Happily, there is a lot of that here too. Dylan sitting with Allen Ginsberg at Jack Kerouac’s grave, playing a harmonium. Ginsberg dancing lithely. Patti Smith telling a goofy
story about an incestuous archer. Joni Mitchell asserting that she deserves to be taken as seriously as male songwriters. Joan Baez dressing up like Dylan. Views of the political climate of the time, including a Nixon speech (poignant from the vantage point of today’s anti-immigrant hysteria) about bringing a certain standard of living to those who are “fortunate enough to come to this country”.

And there are the performances. The most electric scenes – assuming, of course, that you’re a bona-fide Dylan fan – include the one where we see almost a complete performance of “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall”, with no cutaways, no sudden excursions involving talking heads. Or the hypnotic images of Dylan performing a snarling version of “Isis” in white-face, wearing a hat with flowers in it, or doing “Simple twist of fate” with considerably amended lyrics. That’s where the real magic of this film lies.

P.S. One of my favourite little moments in the film: just as Dylan is talking about watching a Kiss concert and being intrigued by their use of white face-paint, we get a few seconds from Marcel Carne’s great 1945 film Children of Paradise (with the mime artist Baptiste dramatically drawing a cross on the mirror). A classic demonstration of Scorsese as movie nerd. I wrote about Children of Paradise, and Baptiste, in my Hindu “moments” column last year – here’s the piece.

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