‘Rolling Thunder Revue’ Fact Check: How Martin Scorsese’s Bob Dylan ‘Documentary’ Bends the Truth

We separate fact from fantasy in Martin Scorsese’s deliberate piece of Dylanesque mythmaking disguised as a documentary

Bob Dylan Rolling Thunder Revue

Martin Scorsese’s film “Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story” is being billed in some circles as a documentary about Dylan’s fabled Rolling Thunder Revue tour of late 1975.

And so it is. Sort of.

But “Rolling Thunder Revue” is also a deliberate act of mythmaking, a blend of fiction and reality in which the people talking to the camera are as apt to be lying as telling the truth.

This is fitting for an artist who landed in New York from Minnesota in the late 1950s with an invented name, a phony history and a boatload of tall tales about his background, and one who has remained famously elusive throughout his extraordinary career.

At one point in the film, Dylan looks into Scorsese’s camera and explains that he wore a mask at some shows on the tour because, “When somebody’s wearing a mask, he’s gonna tell you the truth. When he’s not wearing a mask, it’s highly unlikely.”

As he says this, Dylan is not wearing a mask.

At another point, he says, “I don’t remember a thing about Rolling Thunder” and follows that with, “What do you wanna know?”

So if you go into “Rolling Thunder Revue” ready to accept everything at face value, you may come out wondering if Paramount Pictures CEO Jim Gianopulos really had an early career as a rock promoter, if a teenage Sharon Stone really ironed Joan Baez’s shirts on the road and if Dylan really got the idea of wearing facepaint on the tour from Kiss.

The movie, all two hours and 20 minutes of it, is definitely worth seeing, for its spectacular concert footage, for its true insights and for its brain-teasing aspects. And it would be entirely appropriate to take it all in and not worry at all about what’s true and what’s not – after all, if you’re a real Dylan fan you know that facts can be inconvenient annoyances to him and to us.

If that’s the case, stop reading here and enjoy the ride.

But if you want to know what you can trust and when you were being lied to, here’s TheWrap’s guide to the new movie about a man who was soon to write these lyrics in a song: “I can mislead people as well as anybody.”

Stefan van Dorp
Early in “Rolling Thunder,” we meet one Stefan van Dorp, an experimental German filmmaker who says he sold Dylan on the idea of having a film crew accompany the tour. Dylan says he didn’t know van Dorp’s work but agreed to the idea and asked Sam Shepard to come along and write dialogue for van Dorp’s film.

TRUTH: There is no Stefan van Dorp. In “Rolling Thunder Revue,” he is being played by Martin von Haselberg, a performance artist who also happens to be married to Bette Midler, who is briefly glimpsed in the movie. Dylan did film the tour for a movie, but it was his idea, and the filming was done by the late Second City co-founder and documentary filmmaker Howard Alk.

It’s Alk’s footage that we’re seeing in “Rolling Thunder Revue,” despite the occasional addition of voiceovers from von Haselberg to make it seem as if “van Dorp” was behind the camera. And yes, playwright Shepard was hired to write dialogue for a film that would become “Renaldo and Clara,” a tour chronicle and fantasia that was much longer and weirder than Scorsese’s.

In his book “Rolling Thunder Logbook,” which was published shortly after the tour, Shepard wrote that Dylan’s first words to him were, “We don’t have to make any connections. None of this has to connect. In fact, it’s better if it doesn’t connect.” The four-hour “Renaldo and Clara” definitely didn’t connect, and only stayed in theaters for one week in 1978.

(Full confession: I saw it four times that week.)

Jim Gianopulos
CLAIM: Unsuspecting Hollywood types may be surprised to find former Fox and current Paramount chief Jim Gianopulos show up early in the film and says, “Not to brag, but Rolling Thunder was kind of my idea.” In the film, Gianopulos says he was a concert promoter at the time, and Scorsese backs up this story with a clip from a trade article that says Gianopulos had been named vice president of Gold Star Productions in Providence, Rhode Island, after formerly being an entertainment attorney.

TRUTH: According to his official biographies, Gianopulos was still a law student at Fordham in 1975, graduating in 1976. He did get into the entertainment industry as an entertainment lawyer but never worked as a concert promoter. His onscreen claim that the tour didn’t play large enough venues to make money, given the size of the band and the number of special guests, is no doubt true, but he has no first-hand knowledge of that.

Jack Tanner
CLAIM: Late in the film, a congressman named Jack Tanner, a Jimmy Carter protégé newly elected to the House of Representatives, talks about how Carter got him tickets to a Rolling Thunder Revue show in Niagara Falls.

TRUTH: The tour did play Niagara Falls on Nov. 15, 1975, and Dylan was friends with Carter, who was running for president in 1975 and would be elected the following year.

But Jack Tanner couldn’t have gone to the show, because Jack Tanner is a fictional character created by actor Michael Murphy for the 1988 HBO miniseries “Tanner ’88,” written by cartoonist Garry Trudeau and directed by Robert Altman. In “Rolling Thunder Revue,” Murphy is once again playing Tanner.

Sharon Stone
CLAIM: One of the oddest sections of the film comes when actress Sharon Stone tells of reluctantly going to see the tour with her mother at the age of 19. She says Dylan himself let them in when security said their tickets were no good, and that he noticed her Kiss t-shirt and they had a conversation about Kabuki makeup.

Later, she says Dylan asked her to join the tour to help with the wardrobe, and that he once played “Just Like a Woman” for her backstage, claiming he’d just written it for her. Tour member T Bone Burnett, she said, broke the news to her that it was an old song.

TRUTH: I suppose it can’t be completely disproven in all respects, but it certainly seems to be fiction. No accounts from the time of the tour mention Stone, though it’s unlikely she would have been singled out. (She actually would have been 17 at the time, not 19, if she was born in March 1958, her stated date of birth at IMDb, biography.com and other online sources.)

At the time, she and her mother lived in Pennsylvania, where the Rolling Thunder Tour did not stop. One member of the tour who saw the film told TheWrap he was sure Stone did not join the tour in any capacity.

TheWrap asked Stone for comment, and through her publicist, she sent this reply, which seems completely in keeping with the style and approach of the film:

“You can trust Marty Scorsese to make the best movie possible
And everyone in it to have been it in because of our genuine relationships with Bob and Marty
And what they mean to each of us
And that piece remains private to us all
As it did prior to the film”

CLAIM: At two different points in the film, it is implied that Dylan’s white face paint at the Rolling Thunder shows was inspired by the rock band Kiss — either by Stone’s t-shirt, or by violinist Scarlet Rivera, who Dylan says was the girlfriend of “the leader of Kiss,” and who he says took him to see the band in a small club.

TRUTH: Accounts at the time say that Rivera met Dylan in the summer of 1975 when Kiss was already doing the arena shows that would be used for its breakthrough album, “Alive!” While a Rolling Thunder tour member told TheWrap that Rivera did know the members of Kiss, that band’s itinerary for 1975 and 1976 included arenas, civic centers and large theaters, but no clubs.

The Rolling Thunder makeup was more likely to have been inspired by Italian commedia dell’arte, which Dylan mentions in the film, or by band members like Mick Ronson (who wore makeup as David Bowie’s guitarist in the early ’70s) and Steven Soles (who wore it for the tour’s Halloween-night performance, when Dylan wore a mask and before he began painting his face).

Richard Nixon
CLAIM: This isn’t a claim so much as an implication. At the beginning of the film, a sequence about the U.S. bicentennial celebrations includes footage of President Nixon talking about the bicentennial. And later, the film includes footage of Nixon resigning the presidency, with the timeline implying that it took place during the Rolling Thunder tour.

TRUTH: Nixon resigned in August of 1974, more than a year before Rolling Thunder got off the ground and 17 months before any bicentennial celebrations began.

CLAIM: One of the most colorful characters on the tour and in the movie is a Rolling Stone reporter named Larry Sloman and nicknamed “Ratso.” Several of those interviewed for the film, including “Stefan van Dorp,” single him out as being particularly annoying.

TRUTH: Larry Sloman exists, he is nicknamed “Ratso,” and his 1978 book about the tour, “On the Road With Bob Dylan,” makes a convincing case that he was every bit as annoying as the film suggests.

“One More Cup of Coffee”
CLAIM: In the film, Dylan talks about his song “One More Cup of Coffee” coming to him in a dream after he went to a gypsy celebration in the South of France on his birthday.

TRUTH: Dylan told similar stories when he introduced the song onstage in 1978, at one point suggesting that it was inspired by a gypsy king with “16 wives and 120 children.” His regular collaborator during the Rolling Thunder days, Jacques Levy, told Dylan biographer Robert Shelton that the song came to Dylan while he was “living with gypsies in Corsica.” And other people claim it was written at a corner table in the Other End nightclub in Greenwich Village. So who really knows?

The Music
It’s all true, in every sense of that word.

For the record: The original version of this story said that actor Michael Moriarty played Jack Tanner in “Tanner ’88” and also in “Rolling Thunder Revue.” The role was played by Michael Murphy.