Martin Scorsese’s ‘Rolling Thunder Revue’ Turns a Legendary Bob Dylan Tour Into a Musical Dream
Will we ever see an artist like Bob Dylan again? This is a question easily inspired by “Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese,” a sprawling, indeed thundering chronicle of one of the American bard’s most legendary tours. Fittingly, this tale is told by Martin Scorsese, not only a great filmmaker, but an artist obsessed with the past. Additionally, Scorsese was also one of the key directors to pioneer the use of rock n’ roll as the driving force of a movie’s soundtrack. But unlike his previous chronicles of bands like the Rolling Stones, “Rolling Thunder Revue” is almost an elegy for a bygone era.
It was 1975, one year away from the bicentennial of the United States. A somber mood cut through any national pride as the carnage of Vietnam lingered in the public consciousness, as well as the aftershocks of Watergate and Richard Nixon’s resignation. Bob Dylan, folk poet and icon of American music, puts together a grand troubadour show to tour the country, baptizing it as the Rolling Thunder Revue. Fellow stage greats of the age like Joan Baez, Roger McGuinn, T-Bone Burnett, Joni Mitchell, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Beat deity Allen Ginsberg would tag along for the ride. It was not a pristine plan, rumbling through the U.S. like a beautifully chaotic, feverish chorus of voices, visions, dreams and yes, of course, egos. Crowds would gather and be moved, backstage the battle between art and commerce would rage, and to this day, even Dylan has no clue what it was all really about.
“Rolling Thunder Revue” weaves a spell like a musical fever dream. Scorsese’s approach isn’t to simply deliver a straight forward chronicle of the 1975 tour, but to form a collage of how the participants remember it or prefer to explain what took place. Early on Dylan, with that scraggly and distant demeanor, insists he remembers nothing about Rolling Thunder, “I wasn’t even born.” The documentary’s early passages begin with stock footage of 1970s America, as a nation uncertain of itself. Then vintage footage follows Dylan into New York’s underground scene where we catch glimpses of young artists about to leave their own mark, like Patti Smith who electrifies with her prose. Later she’s sitting in a balcony with Dylan, showing the camera a picture of poet Arthur Rimbaud that she carries around, wishing the 19th century enfant terrible could be her boyfriend. The parade of cameos is almost too grandiose to accurately report, with appearances from the likes of the late Sam Shepard or, most revealingly, Sharon Stone, who remembers attending Rolling Thunder with her mom and catching Dylan’s gaze. It’s hinted that Dylan’s white face makeup during the tour was inspired by KISS, the band on the shirt Stone happened to be wearing when she met the folk god. It’s just another floating rumor in a documentary riddled with them. The more probable source of inspiration for the makeup, as hinted by Shepard, was the French film “Children of Paradise.” What is more intriguing is how Dylan brought Stone along to hang out backstage for future show dates, playfully making her believe at one that she inspired “Just Like a Woman” (which was already a 10 year-old song). Also a true story? At least it makes for a great one. Michael Murphy also appears as “The Politician,” who claims none other than Jimmy Carter took him to a Rolling Thunder show. Anything is possible.
Scorsese builds a narrative by cutting from absorbing concert footage and the participants’ personal narratives. Some of the stories are quite hilarious, like cameraman Martin von Haselberg, who shot much of the stock footage, still sounding annoyed when remembering Rolling Stone journalist Larry ‘Ratso’ Sloman being cocky as he followed the tour, even dressing like Dylan and basking in people confusing him for the main attraction. Meanwhile Dylan recalls Haselberg as being the type of control freak who easily finds enemies to make in any group. Other moments are lovely, as when Dylan remembers Joan Baez as eternally giving the impression of having come to Earth on a meteor. An endearing yet somewhat tragic figure on this road trip is Allen Ginsberg. A giant of American poetry, Ginsberg apparently harbored a secret desire to be a musician and eagerly joined Rolling Thunder. He would open the shows with a reading, but when promoters grew concerned about revenue and the need for more musical appeal to the masses, Ginsberg’s slot was not only cut, he was soon reduced to helping carry luggage. In a rare bit of footage we see the bearded wordsmith reading Jack Kerouac over his fellow poet’s grave along with Dylan, yet we always get the sense he was trying to fit into a particular place not tailored at all to what he could do.
As a concert film “Rolling Thunder Revue” gratefully takes its time with allowing us to observe its stunning performances. When Dylan delivers a scorching “Isis,” or a heartfelt duet with Baez, or when he nearly chants “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall,” the images burst with grain and color, capturing astounding detail in what everyone was doing onstage. This was the spellbinding performer still in his prime. Baez admits on camera that she has never met anyone else with Dylan’s stage charisma. Adding to the force of the music is the band, most notably violinist Scarlet Rivera, bringing a powerful sheen to every note. She later evokes a bohemian aura and seems sweet when interviewed backstage. It is pure magic when Rivera and Dylan perform the mystical “One More Cup of Coffee,” which Dylan describes as being written after hanging out with a community of gypsies in Europe until dawn.
There is a mythic quality to “Rolling Thunder Revue” in which Scorsese isn’t just doing another concert film, although he has done them stunningly like the Rolling Stones opus “Shine a Light,” but instead a chronicle about the symbolism and power of these artists and the music. Dylan and the rest of the artistic troupe featured here were not only popular they captured in a unique fashion the very essence of changing times. An image that lingers happens after a show ends in a small American town and a girl can’t help but burst into tears as everyone files out. Tour promoter and now Paramount CEO Jim Gianopulos shares some of the backstage tensions between the demands of commerce and Dylan’s artistic aims. Instead of playing massive venues, Dylan and the rest of the headliners agreed on more intimate, smaller spots precisely to connect directly with the audience. The narrative will venture out of the concert hall and into a U.S. facing economic slowdown, the bloody daze of Vietnam and a suspicion of all institutions.
At 2 hours and 22 minutes “Rolling Thunder Revue” can seriously be called that overused term in cinema chatter, “epic.” It is a poetic, enveloping one to be sure, joyfully mixing fact, possible fiction and timeless music into a canvas of America at a certain time. It isn’t only about Bob Dylan, and yet it swirls all around him too. Hopefully it will make us look ahead, and wonder what poets our own tumultuous era will bring forth. For the moment, when you watch this documentary make sure to play it loud.
“Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese” begins streaming June 12 on Netflix.