Film Review | Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story
A stunning blend of fact, fiction and extraordinary restored concert footage shows us the entertaining world of Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue.
Martin Scorsese’s latest excursion into the mythical world of Bob Dylan is billed as “part documentary, part concert movie and part fever dream", but this is later understood as Dylan tells the camera “When somebody’s wearing a mask, he’s going to tell you the truth. When he’s not wearing a mask, it’s highly unlikely.” - it is to be noted, no one throughout the series of interviews is wearing a mask.
As the opening credits roll, Scorsese intercuts them with vintage footage of a magician performing a disappearing trick. He subtitles the movie “Conjuring The Rolling Thunder Revue." The documentary opens with shots of hawkers and hucksters, of Nixon and Gerald Ford and of Dylan singing his classic song of escape, Mr Tambourine Man. For the next 2 hours and 22 minutes, we are to be informed, bamboozled, entertained, enlightened and led astray.
The New York auteur goes on to blend fact, fiction and extraordinary restored and alive performance footage to weave a tale that belongs to the seventies, yet is free from its temporal restraints. Filmmaker and subject waste no time delivering Dylan’s central message to the audience; six minutes in, modern day Bob speaks to the camera:
“Life isn't about finding yourself or finding anything. Life is about creating yourself, and creating things.”
Cards on the table. Here the message is communicated directly, elsewhere it comes by inference, sometimes by example, but it is always delivered with a playful wink.
In the interview woven throughout the film, Scorsese captures latter day Dylan at his best, irascible and hilarious. He lampoons various members of the Revue and accompanying characters. He leaves us pondering how seriously to take him when he claims to not remember anything about the tour before deadpanning “what do you want to know?” The tone is set.
In 1975, Dylan had returned to New York’s Greenwich Village to reconnect with the energy he had felt when arriving in the city in the early sixties. Some of his old cohorts were still around and one of them, Bobby Neuwirth, pulled a band together to fulfill Dylan’s long held desire to go on the road with an old time revue style show. Dylan also decided to shoot a movie while on the tour, Titled 'Renaldo and Clara', it was eventually released in 1978 with a running time of 4 hours and 52 minutes and was greeted with critical disdain. There were reels of unused footage left gathering dust and Scorsese sat with this material for ten years, eventually using it to craft this beguiling parable.
At the heart of the film is a series of extraordinary performances by Dylan. The camera work is a stunning example of visual storytelling, laying bare all of Dylan’s quirks, observing the intimate relations with the band, capturing the intensity with which he approached his art on this tour. We witness close up a creative furnace on the stages of the many small towns they visited.
In the film, 'Ratso' Sloman, erstwhile Rolling Stone reporter, who turned tour chronicler with his book On The Road With Bob Dylan, asks the singer how come he’s so “loose” on stage. Dylan answers with a simple, "it’s just the element I work best in.” He's referring to his vision of the tour as a musical version of Commedia Dell’Arte, the popular improvised comedy-theater, originated in Italy in 16th to 18th Century that spread across Europe. Dylan's ambition is revealed first hand.
The musical element is provided by a roster of troupe members, guitar players crowd the stage, David Mansfield's mandolin forces itself into the game and bassist Rob Stoner and drummer Howie Wyeth provide the rhythmic beat that hangs it all together. Then there is the wildcard that is Scarlet Rivera's soulful and piercing violin.
The material drawn here from Dylan's 1976 Desire album is being played live before audiences were able to experience the studio version. The trio of Stoner, Wyeth and Rivera, central to those recordings, overlay these Desire tracks with a mystical sound that circles Dylan’s voice like the crackle and smoke from a campfire.
Dylan also revives inspired versions of his older songs, The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll and A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall among them, infusing them with a new verve and he adopts an animated stage persona to deliver them. He prowls the stage, aware of and in complete control of his power. Thankfully, Scorsese mainly airs the performance footage he picks in its entirety; this stuff demands to be seen.
Scorsese peppers the film with a series of contemporary interviews; with a promoter, a filmmaker, an actress and a Congressman. The movie flips between these moments, close-ups of Dylan on stage in 1975, archive footage of the Bicentennial celebrations and America’s economic woes that were the backdrop of the tour. It is left for us to decide what is real and what is not.
Allen Ginsberg takes a prominent role across the proceedings, as a commentator and a participant. One shaman rejoicing in the presence of another. Ginsberg’s fascination with Dylan’s mystique translates into a leading role for the beat poet in the exposition of Scorsese’s message. The filmmaker chooses him to deliver the final comment on the events we have witnessed over the last two hours and twenty minutes.
“You who saw it all, or saw flashes and fragments, take from us some example, try to get yourself together, clean up your act, find your community, pick up on some kind of redemption of your own consciousness, become more mindful of your own friends, your own work, your own proper art, your own beauty, go out and make it for your own eternity.”
Watch the movie with this in mind and experience the generosity of the lesson Scorsese and Dylan are sharing. No tricks necessary, the magic is real.