Bob Dylan could be a character in a Martin Scorsese movie. A prickly, emotionally complex, slightly shady artist who might be telling you the truth and might not. That’s how Scorsese presents him in “The Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story,” a rousing, not always truthful documentary of Dylan’s travelling caravan traipsing around the Northeast in 1975.
The title of the film is revealing: “A Bob Dylan Story.” It’s a tale—sometimes a tall tale—that resembles Dylan’s life without being totally accurate. Identities shift, relationships evolve, nothing stays the same. What Scorsese offers us is a reasonable facsimile of what The Rolling Thunder Revue was like: A rollicking good time, a shape-shifting getaway, and an inspiring journey. Scorsese said he wanted the film to be like a magic trick, an unpredictable sleight of hand.
The Rolling Thunder story starts with Dylan back in New York in the summer of 1975. His marriage was on the rocks and he was living in a brownstone he owned on MacDougal Street. At night he was stopping by Greenwich Village clubs where his career had first taken off in the early ’60s. Hanging out with a rag-tag group of friends and folkies, it was here that he got the idea for the Rolling Thunder Revue, a sort of touring jubilee of musicians and artists, an American Comedia dell’arte, as Dylan called it.
Dylan had recently completed a massive and overblown arena tour, his first public performances in eight years, with his former backup group, The Band. After maxing out, he was likely wondering, what do I do now? The idealism of the ’60s was over, replaced by a music business too big for its own good and an overall post-Watergate malaise. Artists and musicians, who had fermented much of the spirit of the past decade, were searching for direction like everyone else. So why not team up with an itinerant troubadour and ramble around the Northeast? It was the grown up version of running off and joining the circus. As fiddle player Scarlett Rivera, who was, perhaps apocryphally, recruited when Dylan saw her on the street carrying her violin case, says in the film, “When Mr. Tambourine Man asks you to join the band, you do it.”
So in the fall of 1975, Dylan along with a revolving cast of characters, including Joan Baez, Allen Ginsberg, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Joni Mitchell, Sam Shepard, Patti Smith and Roger McGuinn hit the road for a series of unannounced shows in mostly small theaters in towns like Bangor, Maine, Burlington, Vermont and Durham, New Hampshire. Appropriately, the tour kicked off in historically rich Plymouth, Mass., where the Pilgrims first landed, at a time when Bicentennial fever was sweeping the nation. The Rolling Thunder Revue was Dylan and company’s counter-celebration of American spirit and eccentricity.
Scorsese inherited hours of performance and interview footage originally shot for a fictionalized documentary, released as the almost incomprehensible four-hour “Renaldo and Clara” in 1975. Written and directed by Dylan, it featured characters switching identities, with Canadian rocker Ronnie Hawkins billed as Dylan, actress/musician Ronee Blakley (“Nashville”) as Mrs. Dylan, Dylan’s wife, Sara, was Clara and Baez the Woman in White.
Over the years, Dylan has always been an unreliable narrator of his own history, reinventing himself as the spirit strikes him, and Scorsese keeps up that evasive playfulness in his film. The movie opens with a clip from Georges Méliès 1896 silent short, “The Vanishing Lady,” in which a tuxedoed magician ceremoniously makes a woman disappear. Continuing the masquerade, Scorsese built in a handful of fake interviews along with the real ones—not necessarily to deceive anyone but just because they were fun. Thus we have Sharon Stone turning up as a small town beauty queen who allegedly ran off with the tour when she was 19. A plausible story but a total fabrication.
And one Martin Van Haselberg (husband of Bette Midler, who also makes a brief cameo in the film) plays a filmmaker who was supposedly brought on to document the tour. He’s interviewed extensively about his experience shooting a film of the tour that didn’t exist.
Through much of the film, Dylan performs in white face, sporting a fedora with flowers and a peacock feather. As he explains, “You only tell the truth when you’re wearing a mask.” So as elusive as Dylan may be in real life, he hides nothing onstage. The performances are ferocious, raw, heartfelt, covering the range of his identities, from voice-of-a-generation protest singer to symbolist poet to lovelorn husband. What makes the film riveting is Scorsese’s decision to show Dylan singing mostly in close-up without a lot of cutting to other shots. He just stays with a song to capture its full force, unlike the way music is usually shot today.
And what songs they are: “Hurricane,” Dylan’s indictment of a racist legal system that wrongfully imprisoned boxer Ruben “Hurricane” Carter; “A Simple Twist of Fate,” a painful reminder that things don’t always work out in love; “Like a Rolling Stone,” a bitter score-settling snapshot of a betrayal, and a couple of dozen other gems. Dylan is at the height of his creative powers, eyes blazing, spitting out the lyrics as if his life depended on it. And, in a sense, it does.
Aside from the music, Scorsese and editor David Tedeshi manage to create a resonant narrative out of disparate moments. In an unexpectedly moving scene, Baez, Dylan’s ex-lover in the ’60s, confronts him for running off and getting married without telling her. The scars of the past and present persist. In another clip, in Gordon Lightfoot’s living room, Joni Mitchell unveils her newly penned song, “Coyote,” about her brief affair on the tour with Sam Shepard.
Presiding over the alchemy of the tour is Ginsberg, listed in the credits as The Oracle of Delphi. His presence ties the tour to the tradition of American poets who reflected their times, from Walt Whitman to William Carlos Williams to Dylan and friends. At one point, Ginsberg takes Dylan to Jack Kerouac’s grave in Lowell, Mass., and recites one of Kerouac’s poems.
Scorsese’s film argues that the tour was more than a musical interlude, it was a cultural event that speaks to a point in American history. Interviewed for the first time in 10 years, an ill-at-ease Dylan claims he doesn’t know what the tour was about, it was too long ago. But at the end of the film, Ginsberg looks straight into the camera, exhorting viewers to find a group of common-minded people with a similar purpose and go out in the world and do something. And that’s what The Rolling Thunder Revue was about, lovingly recreated by Scorsese.