The “Rolling Thunder Revue,” a ramshackle 1975 tour hailed as an artistic peak in the legendary Bob Dylan's career, “was a catastrophe,” the singer says in a quasi-documentary film available on Netflix. “It wasn't a success, not if you measure success in terms of profit."
If you measure success in terms of riveting shows, experimental verve and a freewheeling framework, however, Dylan's tour was a thundering smash. And thanks to Martin Scorsese, there's a rousing encore.
In Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese, the world's greatest filmmaker aims his camera at the world's greatest singer-songwriter and hits the bull's-eye. It's as unpredictable, wily, sharp and cryptic as its slippery subject.
The film lives up to its billing as “part documentary, part concert film, part fever dream.” Scorsese has crammed Rolling Thunder's rollicking two hours and 22 minutes with electrifying performances, intimate rehearsal scenes, compelling interviews, backstage intrigue, cultural context, levity and enough curveballs to keep viewers baffled and bemused as they attempt to sort fact from fiction.
The director, best known for dramas such as Raging Bull and Goodfellas, but also acclaimed for music docs on Dylan, The Band, George Harrison and the Rolling Stones, breaks new ground with hopscotching timelines and crafty inventions in Rolling Thunder's mash-up of cinema verité and bijou abracadabra.
"I wanted the picture to be a magic trick,” Scorsese says in the film's press notes. “Magic is the nature of film. There's an element to the tour that has a sense of fun to it — doing something to the audience. You don't make it predictable. There's a great deal of sleight of hand."
Dylan, now 78, has always toyed with mythology and used playful deception to confound the media and shield his privacy. In a fresh on-camera interview, he hints at pranks in store, declaring: “When somebody's wearing a mask, he's going to tell the truth. When he's not wearing a mask, it's highly unlikely.” He says this while unmasked. In the film, he appears onstage in white face paint.
In late 1975, the year after a celebrated tour with The Band and 10 years after scandalizing the folk world by going electric, Dylan gathered a carnival troupe of musicians, filmmakers, poets and writers on a tour of the Northeast, playing 31 shows in 23 cities, from Oct. 30 to Dec. 8. Most venues were modest: theaters, a gym, a convention hall, a women's prison. The 15-member film crew catches Dylan and his minstrels performing at the Tuscarora Indian reservation and a mah-jongg parlor.
Dylan was 34 and a global icon, but he felt compelled to downsize and road-test songs from his upcoming Desire album. The film captures Dylan's blazing, committed performances of “Isis,” “One More Cup of Coffee (Valley Below)” and “Hurricane,” as well as his earlier tunes “A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall,” “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” and a solo acoustic “Simple Twist of Faith.”
Every song in the film is included in a massive new box set, The Rolling Thunder Revue: The 1975 Live Recordings. With five full concerts, rehearsals and rarities, the 14-CD, 148-track collection dwarfs 2002's two-CD “Bootleg Series” of “Rolling Thunder” selections.
Cast of characters
Dylan's band of gypsies lend heft and humor to the rock vaudeville. The duets with folk queen Joan Baez are stunning, and she's a canny foil, at one point masquerading as Dylan backstage in greasepaint, facial hair and his clothes to experience how the crew kowtows to the boss. The band visits Gordon Lightfoot at his home in Canada, where a luminous Joni Mitchell, Dylan and the Byrds’ Roger McGuinn rehearse her new song, "Coyote," a year before its release on her album Hejira.
Spiders from Mars guitarist Mick Ronson, singer-actress Ronee Blakley, electric violinist Scarlet Rivera, guitarist-pianist T Bone Burnett and folkies Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Bob Neuwirth join the entourage. Allen Ginsberg is the tour mahatma, though he spends more time tinkling finger cymbals than reciting poetry. Playwright Sam Shepard comes aboard, as does, implausibly, Sharon Stone. The cast grows so large that stage roles are shortened or dumped and poet Peter Orlovsky is reduced to doing janitorial tasks to maintain a slot on the tour.
Offstage, whether driving a Winnebago in the tour convoy or visiting Jack Kerouac's grave, Dylan is engaging and provocative. In the new interview, he's by turns hilarious, illuminating and caustic. As he strains to relate certain 40-year-old details, he tells Scorsese, “I don't remember a thing about “Rolling Thunder"! It happened so long ago, I wasn't even born."
Scorsese suggests one reason that the restless troubadour may not have crisp recall of the tour's finer points. As the film ends, the “Rolling Thunder” itinerary scrolls by on-screen, followed by the 1976 leg, then every show on the 1978 world tour and the subsequent gospel tour. The credits roll faster as hundreds and hundreds of live concert appearances pile up over the decades. The Rolling Thunder Revue film takes a warm look back, but Dylan, perpetually booked on his fabled “never-ending tour,” has never stopped moving forward.
Edna Gundersen is an American journalist and a former longtime music writer and critic for USA Today.