- Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese
- Directed by Martin Scorsese
- Classification: N/A; 142 minutes
- Rating: 3.5 out of 4 stars
What was the Rolling Thunder Revue? For Bob Dylan obsessives, it was the musician’s legendary 1975-76 tour across the United States and Canada, which saw the troubadour take over intimate venues alongside famous friends such as Allen Ginsberg, Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell. For Martin Scorsese acolytes, it was the object of a deeply optimistic rumour, a long-whispered-about documentary that the legendary director either was or wasn’t working on for years. And for Dylan himself? The Rolling Thunder Revue “was just a thing that happened 40 years ago.”
Or so says the musician at the beginning of Scorsese’s finally-here film. But Dylan’s quick dismissal is a humble-brag for the ages, as Scorsese’s doc – arriving after all this time thanks to the largesse of Netflix – proves that the Rolling Thunder Revue was much more than just a loose scattering of concerts. It was a moment for Dylan, a moment for popular music, a moment for artistic ambition. It was a moment when it seemed that one part of American culture could save the other. And it was a moment, miraculously, captured on film.
But not by Scorsese. Or not really. Most of the footage used in the new film is said to be courtesy of Martin von Haselberg, a German performance artist who Scorsese tells us was drafted to shoot the deliberately loose proceedings. Although you get the strong sense that Dylan didn’t care for Von Haselberg and vice versa, there is little doubt that someone captured the remarkable artistic happening, filming Dylan and his cohorts not only onstage but backstage and beyond. We follow the whole merry disparate Rolling Thunder Revue ensemble (including guitarist T Bone Burnett and playwright Sam Shepard) in tour buses, hotel rooms, Manhattan record label offices, in Gordon Lightfoot’s Toronto home. For those with only a casual interest in the artistic process, it will feel like a rare peek behind the creative curtain. For Dylan fans, it is the warmest of embraces.
For his part, Scorsese has assembled the footage with all the delicate care you would expect of the filmmaker who’s already made one superb, super-sized Dylan documentary (2005′s three-and-a-half-hour No Direction Home, which focused on Dylan’s “electric” period of 1965-66). Scorsese’s careful guiding hand here would have been enough, as would his slick insertion of archived newsreel footage and quick lifts from the films of Robert Altman and Georges Méliès (the latter of which mirror, for Scorsese at least, the magical, maybe too-good-to-be-true sense of next-level conjuring that Dylan’s own work evokes).
Yet Scorsese has also convened new talking-head discussions with not only the famously interview-averse Dylan but everyone from Baez to Ronnie Hawkins to Sharon Stone (who maybe, or maybe not, was spotted by Dylan early during the tour, and asked to join to do, well, it’s never quite clear). Far from being waxy, praise-heavy remembrances, the interview subjects are raw and playful, with several participants blurring the line between memory and fiction.
The entire production entertainingly coalesces into part concert doc, part cultural artifact, part “gotcha!” stunt, and part meditation on the fickle, fleeting nature of creativity. Scorsese experiences some extremely minor hiccups here – he loses slight momentum devoting an extended chunk of the film’s final third to Dylan’s fight to help wrongfully convicted boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, although that is fascinating enough material for a separate doc – and I personally longed to hear the director’s own excitable voice interrogate Dylan and company onscreen. (Most of the interviews are conducted instead by Jeff Rosen, one of the film’s producers and Dylan’s long-time manager.) Yet by the time Scorsese interrupts his own end credits to deliver an “encore” performance from Dylan, the film secures its place in the pantheon of music documentaries.
Dylan himself might disagree, though. “What remains of that tour? Nothing. Ashes,” he tells the camera toward the end of Scorsese’s film. As much as it pains me to say, Bob Dylan, you have no idea what you’re talking about.
Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese opens June 11 at the TIFF Lightbox in Toronto (tiff.net), a day before it’s available to stream on Netflix; the 14-disc Rolling Thunder Revue: The 1975 Live Recordings is released June 7 from Columbia Records/Legacy Recordings.
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