The cultural iconography of Bob Dylan just got longer by two hours and 20 minutes with the release of Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese. It’s a concert documentary, released on Netflix this week after a brief theatrical bow, that looks at the titular tour which Dylan embarked on along with an eclectic cast of musicians, poets, and others back in 1975.
The film assembles archival footage that was shot during the tour with contemporary talking head interviews with Dylan and others. Also, somewhat controversially, there’s quite a bit of stuff in the material that’s not quite true, including various fictional characters, including director “Stefan Van Dorp.” Sharon Stone also shows up to tell some dubious-sounding stories about her adventures on Dylan’s tour as a teenager.
Rolling Thunder Revue is Scorsese’s second doc about Dylan, following 2005’s No Direction Home, and there are all sorts of elements that make it a must…
Rolling Thunder Revue is Scorsese’s second doc about Dylan, following 2005’s No Direction Home, and there are all sorts of elements that make it a must for anyone who’s an obsessive fan of Dylan, of the counterculture, or of mid-’70s culture in general. There’s plenty of Allen Ginsberg, who was along on the tour, as well as the likes of Joan Baez, Patti Smith, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and Ronnie Hawkins.
In a year of very good music documentaries – Homecoming: A Film By Beyonce, All I Can Say, Mystify: Michael Hutchence, Echo in the Canyon – this is probably the best one yet.
What’s striking about this movie, beyond anything else, is just how hilarious Dylan is, especially in the contemporary talking head interviews. The 78-year-old Bob, who isn’t interviewed on camera so often these days, just cracked me up consistently. He talks about how he can’t remember anything that happened on the tour. Near the end, we expect him to say the tour wasn’t a disaster, but then he says it was.
You may not think of Dylan as a natural comedian. But there’s no doubt that there’s always been something about Bob Dylan that just lends itself to humor.
I bet, between Dylan’s influence and longevity, there’s no cultural icon in history who more people have tried to vocally imitate.
Take the man’s voice. He may be into his seventh decade as a performer, but there aren’t many voices more fun to imitate. I bet, between Dylan’s influence and longevity, there’s no cultural icon in history who more people have tried to vocally imitate. And you’ll never convince me that the voice of South Park’s Eric Cartman character didn’t have its origin in Trey Parker’s attempt at a Dylan impression.
As for professional Dylan imitators, Dana Carvey’s old Dylan impression on Saturday Night Live is the gold standard, just a repeated refrain of “eh-buddy, eh-buddy-, yeb-eshee, sheb-shee.”
What’s ironic is that that while Dylan’s reputation for lyrical incoherence is mostly associated with his singing (I’ve been to Dylan concerts where he’s gotten several minutes into songs without my having any idea which song it was ), when he speaks, as in the Scorsese film, he’s perfectly clear.
The Fate of Jack Fate
Of course, Bob himself can be pretty funny too, if not intentionally. Take Larry Charles’ 2002 movie Masked and Anonymous, which put Bob in a rare headline acting role as “Jack Fate,” a rock star in a post-Apocalyptic America who’s sent to perform a rock concert, alongside an all-star cast that includes Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Penelope Cruz, and Jessica Lange.
It’s a bizarre, pointless film, which Dylan co-wrote under the pseudonym “Sergei Petrov,” but I’ll be damned if I didn’t chortle all the way through it. Critic Keith Phipps said it best, writing in The AV Club of Dylan’s performance, that “he’s an icon and he delivers an icon’s performance, literally: He could easily have been replaced by a piece of wood with his face painted on it.”
Neil Young, not to be outdone, would make a movie in 2018 called Paradox, which basically amounted to an unofficial remake of Masked and Anonymous.
And of course, Bob can also be parodied. The master of the form, “Weird Al” Yankovic, came out with a song in 2003 called simply “Bob,” with a joke that worked on multiple levels: It’s a parody of Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” in which all of the lyrics- like “Bob” itself- are palindromes, such as “Lisa Bonet ate no basil,” “rats live on no evil star,” and “do nine men interpret? Nine men I nod.”
The video, meanwhile, is a nearly shot-for-shot remake of Dylan’s ‘Homesick Blues’ clip, with Al dressed as Bob:
Studying Dylan and humor
That question has often been examined, since the early 1960s: Is Bob Dylan funny?
Tony Attwood wrote an essay in 2017 asking if Dylan is funny. He looked at the lyrical content of Dylan’s songs.
Vulture, in 2016, collected a list of funny Dylan stories. And… most of them aren’t that funny, mostly because about a third of them are about Dylan confusing famous people with other famous people.
The best ones? Dylan was arrested in Long Branch, N.J., by police who had been tipped off about “a scruffy old man acting suspiciously.” When Guns ‘n’ Roses covered “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door,” Dylan told them, “I don’t give a fuck. I just want the money.” Also, his dog ate Michael Douglas’ caviar.
When the obituaries of Bob Dylan are written – hopefully not for awhile – his humor probably won’t be mentioned near the top. But there’s little doubt that the man has given me lots of laughs over the years, as have those who wrung humor from his music and persona.