French director and film critic Jean-Luc Godard once said that film is truth told 24 times a second. Brian DePalma countered that statement, saying that it is a lie told 24 times a second. The reality probably lies somewhere in between the two: artists often create fantasies, or “lies,” in order to put forth an essential truth. This is at the heart of Martin Scorsese’s thesis in his second Bob Dylan documentary. Following “No Direction Home,” “Rolling Thunder Revue” is far less straightforward. No longer a standard document of a period of time, this film is far more slyly experimental, having more in common with Todd Haynes’s stream of consciousness “I’m Not There” than any other typical music documentary.
One of the more striking images in the film is Dylan, standing on stage, face covered in white paint, eyes flared, as he belts through ballad after ballad. Already, we are seeing an example of a truthful fantasy. In this regard, it is a re-appropriation of minstrel shows, which often involve white performers in blackface. In this case, it showcases the essential whiteness of those shows, combining it with Japanese kabuki performances to excavate the racist dishonesty that lies beneath them. The film is at its best when it just revels in those performances. The raw energy and anger from Dylan radiates across the stage and through the screen. We get caught up in the fury and injustice that Dylan puts forth.
This is further compounded in his performance of “Hurricane,” one of the standout anti-racist songs of its time (if not, of all time). Here, Dylan states that a black man must constantly put forth a disguise so as to not be harassed by the cops. In this case, it is a certain “whiteface” he must wear as a necessity to blend in with an already hostile whiteness that spews hatred at him. Interviewee and song subject, Rubin Carter says in an interview that Dylan was always trying to “search for something.” What that “something” is is kept vague, but I have an inclination that it refers to something beyond Dylan himself. In this case, I feel like it is Dylan reckoning with himself, his persona, and how those two collide with the changing American society surrounding him.
To further emphasize this point, the film opens with archival footage of America in 1976. The Vietnam War has ended, Nixon has resigned, and America has been turned into a nomad with no place to go. The irony is that this footage takes place a year after Dylan’s 1975 tour, though perhaps that feeds into Scorsese’s clever blurring of fact and fiction. Maybe it doesn’t matter if the chronology of the story makes sense, all that matters is the meaning that it conveys. Like Bob Dylan once said: “Yeah it’s chaos, it’s clocks, it’s watermelons, it’s everything.” Or maybe that means nothing. Maybe he never said that. Who knows? Maybe we should all just sit back, enjoy the music, and remember when to get angry.