"Seeing the Real You at Last": Semifiction and the Epistemology of Celebrity in Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese

Sutherland, Nathaniel, English - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Felski, Rita, English - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia

However seriously audiences may take celebrities, aren’t those audiences generally more inclined to approach celebrity with cynicism rather than faith? Taking Bob Dylan, once among the most famous people on the planet and a major influence on the American counterculture of the 1960s and ‘70s, as a case study, this thesis investigates the epistemology of celebrity, its effects on audiences and its relevance to contemporary American society. Seeking to differentiate fact from fiction, we will interrogate Dylan’s mercurial relationship with his various audiences, their continued trust in a figure known for tongue-in-cheek dishonesty, and the cinematic trickery Martin Scorsese employs to bind his film’s audiences to Dylan’s deceptions.
How do publics reconcile a celebrity’s commercial success with their supposed authenticity? Why do we as audiences revere some stars while mocking others? What empowers certain celebrities to become cultural icons while others languish in relative obscurity, their ‘fifteen minutes’ gone in a flash? Why do audiences care so deeply about some celebrities that those celebrities become essential to those audiences’ very beings? Such questions are at the heart of Martin Scorsese’s 2019 film Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese, an alleged documentary about Bob Dylan’s legendary bicentennial tour through the antique theaters and nigh-forgotten civic centers of New England and the old South. In our attempt to address these thorny questions, we will begin by examining authenticity as such and its relationship to America’s popular music industry. From here, we will explore the ways in which Bob Dylan has straddled the paradox between authenticity and commercialism, taking special note of the moves Dylan makes to manufacture an authentic image. Next, we will take a deep dive into the filmic seas of Martin Scorsese’s latest documentary about Dylan’s career, untangling fact from fiction as we uncover the many masked faces and semifictions which together constitute Scorsese’s movie. Finally, we will consider the implications and potentially deleterious effects of contemporary celebrity culture on democratic politics.

MA (Master of Arts)
Martin Scorsese, celebrity, authenticity, Bob Dylan
Issued Date: