“Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story”
Scorsese and Dylan on the Road
In 1975, Bob Dylan, who had just started touring again after an eight-year break (probably because of his infamous motorcycle accident), decided to put together an unconventional tour and tour group. Instead of simply playing concerts, he’d headline a “revue,” accompanied by a rotating group of fellow musicians (including Joan Baez, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Joni Mitchell, Roger McGuinn, Mick Ronson, etc.), a poet laureate (Allen Ginsberg), a screenwriter (Sam Shepard) for an accompanying film project, and a cameraman (Howard Alk) to shoot material both onstage and behind the scenes. Some of this footage became part of Dylan’s directorial debut, “Renaldo And Clara” (1978) and was not well received. The rest of it was in a vault for decades, until Martin Scorsese found it and made it into a semi-coherent film. Scorsese also decided to add his own element of his own, one that transforms the film from an historically significant afterthought to something of a myth.
It’s unclear how many of Rolling Thunder’s 57 shows were filmed. Most of the concert footage appears to come from just one and focuses almost entirely on Dylan (sometimes singing with Baez), performing songs from “Desire”, his 1976 album he recorded with the same backing band—as well as blistering rock-and-roll arrangements of some of his folk-era classics like “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” It seems likely that many of the supporting acts just didn’t get filmed. But while the tour’s “revue” aspect largely gets lost, Dylan himself is on fire, as he takes the microphone in the white face paint he wore most nights, apparently as a glam-influenced mask. I was very frustrated that Scorsese repeatedly cuts away mid-song in order to contextualize what we’re seeing with talking-head interviews. The film is strongest when watching the legendary performances, that have been largely unseen for forty years.
All of the archival footage (most of the movie) was not shot by Scorsese or his team. He invents a tour filmmaker, Stefan van Dorp (Martin von Haselberg), who appears in present-day interviews complaining about the degree to which his contribution is being undervalued. There’s no onscreen indication that Van Dorp is fictional, however.
Apparently, the idea behind these fictional interludes is that they represent Dylan’s prankish side—he was known to falsify his personal background, claiming to be from New Mexico rather than Minnesota, and makes a point of noting here, when asked about his face paint, that someone wearing a mask is more inclined to be truthful. This playfulness is a distraction and there is too much authenticity here so there is no need for creative fiction. There are some wonderful behind the scenes moments involving Joni Mitchell: We see her teaching Dylan and McGuinn the riff to “Coyote” (then a brand-new song) during a casual jam session and joining a large group in an impromptu rendition of “Love Potion No. 9″ on the tour bus.
Ultimately what will stay alive and endure is the footage of Dylan himself. He is this project’s true auteur, and it’s fitting that the film concludes with a truly startling rundown of literally every day he’s spent on the road since kicking off the Rolling Thunder Revue—which is to say, over the majority of his adult life. There have been no breaks since.