FEATURE: A Bicentennial Celebration or a Genius Recharging His Batteries? Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese




A Bicentennial Celebration or a Genius Recharging His Batteries?



Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese


I am always fascinated by music documentaries…

and that moment when a filmmaker captures a particular moment in time. Some documentaries tell a life-story and the full narrative of an act; some concentrate on little periods of time and go into more depth. There is a lot of talk and attention on the music biopic right now, what with the Elton John picture, Rocketman, doing well – the Queen biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody, scooped some Oscars. There is a great new documentary, Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese, that one can see on Netflix. There are two schools of thought when it comes to that tour. I shall come to that but, when it comes to its origins, the 1975 tour was a new step for Dylan. It was largely a Dylan tour but he took with him a rotation of musicians and collaborators. Dylan was playing in smaller venues for the tour and, after a busy year that saw the release of one of his most popular albums, Blood on the Tracks, he wanted to scale things down slightly. The tour was definitely quite intimate and Dylan was able to have a great connection with his fans. Some of the artists that he brought on the road with him included Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell – some of the biggest artists in the world sharing the same stage must have been an insane treat for fans! The tour reached Canada by the autumn of 1975 and reached the South-West by the spring of 1976 – Dylan released another album, Desire, between two legs of the tour (that sounds a bit smutty but you know what I mean!).


There are a couple of different reasons why Dylan took the Rolling Thunder Revue on the road. It was a great way to play smaller areas and venues; to get away from a lot of the pressure and try something a bit small-scale. Some say that Dylan was showing signs of fatigue and it must have been pretty busy in his camp before 1975. Also, the U.S.A. was celebrating its bicentennial in 1975 and there was a lot of cause for cheer. I do not really buy the fact Dylan was showing his patriotism: more that he needed to cut loose from some of the bigger gigs and pare it down a bit. Bob Dylan was, and is, an ordinary guy who is humble and wants to please his fans. A lot of the larger venues and stadiums seemed impersonal and it was hard to feel that contact with the audience. As such, his new venture was a perfect way to get back in touch with his fans and not have quite so much on his shoulders. That said, Martin Scorsese’s documentary is definitely exciting, revealing and memorable! With all those musicians and artists with him, I can imagine there were some logical nightmares and debates! I have heard some say that the new documentary has its flaws and it is not really a cohesive and satisfying film. There are others who rightly say Scorsese has affectionately and passionately documented a key time in Dylan’s career.

A load of work went into the documentary and, as this feature in The New Yorker explains, one is definitely in for a treat!

For the concert footage alone, Scorsese’s “Rolling Thunder Revue” is exhilarating and even essential viewing. (I’d estimate that about half of the movie, which runs two hours and twenty-two minutes, features musical performances by Dylan and others.) The shows reflected the carnivalesque tumult that surrounded them, and the musical reinvention was even more extreme than that of “Before the Flood.” The collaborations add distinctive new flavors to Dylan’s music (Rivera’s violin seems, all by itself, to turn the large group into an orchestra), and the musical reunion with Baez displays their exalted sense of shared artistic purpose.

IN THIS PHOTO: Mick Ronson and Bob Dylan trade licks/PHOTO CREDIT: Ken Regan

Yet there’s much more to Scorsese’s film than the concerts, and not for the better. The film’s most tantalizing, frustrating elements are scenes of Dylan and the group in rehearsal, which are all too brief. It is as if Scorsese were illustrating the mere fact that they rehearsed rather than looking with any curiosity at the processes behind the group’s real-time development of musical ideas. By contrast, the most exciting scene in the film features Mitchell jamming on her song “Coyote” with Dylan and Roger McGuinn—rather, teaching it to them—in Gordon Lightfoot’s Toronto apartment; that impromptu performance continues in a tightrope walk of an unexpected, extended take that catches the miracle of spontaneous artistic inspiration.

There is a cliché that has regained currency with the release of Scorsese’s film: Bob Dylan the trickster, the slippery and malleable figure whose first trick may have been the pseudonym under which he made his fame. In “Rolling Thunder Revue,” Scorsese seems eager not only to highlight this side of Dylan but to participate in his tricks. Interspersed among the film’s authentic interviews, for instance, are mockumentary scenes that concoct fictional details about the tour. Martin von Haselberg plays the role of Stefan Van Dorp, a fictional director who is presented as responsible for filming the archival footage. The real-life movie executive Jim Gianopulos plays Jim Gianopulos, the (fictional) businessperson behind the tour. Sharon Stone plays herself and talks about her (fictitious) acquaintance with Dylan in the course of the tour. Dylan himself takes part in these games, referring on several occasions to Van Dorp’s and Stone’s presence and actions during the tour. Scorsese even places these characters amid the archival footage, dubbing the voice of Van Dorp into documentary sequences, blurring the historical record to match the fictional conceit”.

The reviews have been largely complimentary and (the documentary) is a pleasure for fans and new followers alike! There is so much to enjoy regarding Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese. There is a mixture of interviews, rare footage and performances that tells this wonderful and exciting story.

SLANT reviewed Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese and talked about all the mixtures and ingredients that make it so epic:

The footage of the Rolling Thunder Revue has a wandering, druggy intensity, with explosively lurid colors and smoky jam sessions that are occasionally punctuated with a sharp close-up that allows an icon to reveal an unexpected element of their persona. Initially, we see Dylan, Ginsberg, and Baez hanging out in clubs, seemingly patching the Rolling Thunder idea together in between beer and joints and poetry. In a hypnotic image, Dylan and Patti Smith, framed through bars that suggest a prison, discuss the mythology of Superman, with Smith suggesting that the character could crush coal into a diamond. The two artists are clearly playing the role of flake pop-cultural shamans, but they’re also revealing the obsession with power and influence that drives performers of all kinds, including flower-child liberals.

Scorsese culls various images together to offer a startlingly intense vision of America as place that, to paraphrase Dylan, essentially believes in nothing, following one demoralizing crisis after another. Rolling Thunder Revue gradually collapses, mutating from a freeform document of the concert into a series of essays and anecdotes, such as on the origin of Dylan’s Rubin Carter tribute “Hurricane.” The film attains a shaggy shapelessness that suggests the haze of travel, as Dylan and his cohorts push on, delving deeper into their micro worlds.


IN THIS PHOTO: Bob Dylan and the band rehearsing during Ken Regan’s first shoot in New York City in October 1975/PHOTO CREDIT: Ken Regan 

The true shock of Rolling Thunder Revue, however, is in how good, how alive, Dylan is on stage. All of the make-up and masks he wears—other allusions to reinvention, to the essential, simultaneously nourishing and damaging textures of pop culture—seem to liberate him. On this tour, Dylan performs quite a bit of material from Desire, and his singing is clear and urgent and stunningly divorced of his ironic parlor games; he’s connecting with these songs, using the revue concept to channel his canniest and most sincere instincts as an actor and storyteller. And Scorsese frequently contrasts this full-throttle Dylan with the aloof sex symbol who lingers at backstage parties—a pose that’s startled by Joni Mitchell and Baez, two of the rare people who appear to be capable of humbling the maestro”.

IN THIS PHOTO: Bob Dylan in New Haven, Connecticut, in his dressing room. Dylan declares this to be the best photograph anyone has ever taken of him/PHOTO CREDIT: Ken Regan

As an accompaniment to Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese, have a look at this fantastic article that has some great images and candid shots of Dylan at work. Make sure you catch Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese because it is another example of why Bob Dylan is this incredible genius. The seventy-eight-year-old is still on the road and thrilling the crowds. Dylan is one of those artists you never want to stop. He is this legend that has provided the world with some of the finest music ever created and, in Martin Scorsese’s latest project, we get to see Dylan at his very best. For that reason alone, you need to make Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese

 IN THIS PHOTO: Joan Baez takes centre stage with the Rolling Thunder Revue in full swing/PHOTO CREDIT: Ken Regan 

A definite priority.