Will we ever see the likes of Bob Dylan again? It is a question easily inspired by Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese, a sprawling, indeed thundering chronicle now streaming on Netflix of one of the American bard’s most legendary travels across the United States. What made this particular venture unique was the transitional phase the country was enduring, emerging from the tumult of the 1960s, its self-trust scarred, possibly beyond repair. Fittingly, this tale is told by Martin Scorsese, not only a great filmmaker but an artist obsessed with the past. Scorsese’s own works of dramatic cinema have functioned as portraits of the country, framing its beauty as founded by personalities both visionary and violent. 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 akin to 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 blending fact and fiction. It is a concert documentary tailored for this age of “fake news,” but using a habit for fibbing to create an inspiring American mythos. 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. Norman Rockwell landscapes contrast with the predatory stare of Richard Nixon. 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 19thcentury 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 supposedly brought Stone along to hang out backstage for future show dates, playfully making her believe at one point 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 Jack Tanner, the politician he played in Robert Altman’s Tanner ’88. “Tanner” claims none other than Jimmy Carter took him to a Rolling Thunder show. This is obviously pure fabrication, but Scorsese includes it so seamlessly into the narrative that we can only smile and go with it.
The story Scorsese finds amid this fable is potent and funny. Some of the stories shared 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. But keep in mind, dear reader, that in reality there was no von Haselberg. The actual documentarian in 1975 was Howard Alk. Yet when we see footage of Sloman interviewing groupies and badgering people in Dylan’s inner circle, there’s little doubt he was quite the character, if not annoyingly so.
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. Dylan does reminisce about Ginsberg’s oddball yet likeable and spontaneous way of dancing.
We cannot forget about the music, because it is all essentially about the music. 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, almost otherworldly, and seems sweet when interviewed backstage. It is pure magic when Rivera and Dylan perform the mystical “One More Cup of Coffee (Valley Below)” which Dylan describes as being written after hanging out with a community of gypsies in Europe until dawn. The song contains one of my all-time favorite Dylan lines, “your heart is like an ocean, mysterious and dark.”
There is a mythic quality to Rolling Thunder Revue in which Scorsese isn’t just doing another concert film or profile of Dylan, like his 2005 No Direction Home. This film looks back at Dylan from a darkening era, where we lack the fiery poets and wordsmiths to interpret coming storms, or comfort us in times of unrest. Dylan and the rest of the artistic troupe featured here were not only popular, they captured in a unique fashion the very essence of shifting cultural winds. 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. Sam Shepard comments that rural America could care less about the bicentennial, because imperial pageantry will not feed your hungry children. But a song can capture it all with the right melody or lyric.
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 smaller and more intimate spaces precisely to connect directly with the audience. The narrative will venture out of the concert hall and into an America facing economic slowdown, the bloody daze of Vietnam and a suspicion of all institutions. Another disclaimer, dear reader, Gianopulos was not the actual promoter…but who cares?
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, fiction and timeless music into a canvas of America’s unsettled, inner core. Nixon may have snarled and schemed, but there were the artists with their strings, making sense of it all. It isn’t only about Bob Dylan, and yet it swirls all around him, too. Who will sing songs about us? Who will croon to the melting ice caps and make poetry out of blonde emperors spinning deformed fantasies from the podium? For the moment when you watch this documentary, make sure to play it loud.