Director Martin Scorsese is certainly no stranger to documentaries about musicians, whether that’s more straight-forward biographies of Bob Dylan (No Direction Home) or George Harrison (Living in the Material World), or landmark concert films like The Last Waltz (The Band) or Shine A Light (Rolling Stones). His latest work, Rolling Thunder Revue, is a beautiful blend of both, capturing Bob Dylan during his tour of America in 1975, when both the singer/songwriter and the nation were in spiritual upheaval.
The tour was singular for many reasons. Dylan gathered a group of gifted musicians to play behind him, including crack guitar great Mick Ronson and a talented and stunning fiddle player named Scarlet Rivera, who seemed on hand for the sole purpose of captivating the audience and musicians alike with her playing and mystique. But as the name of the tour implies, Dylan also collected a group of like-minded musician friends to each play a few songs a piece before he did, or sometimes join him during his set. There was a definite free-flowing, seat-of-their-pants atmosphere to the proceedings, but the music that resulted was joyful, fiery and led to Dylan playing and singing at his most animated and loose.
Wearing white face paint, a barker’s hat and smiling like he actually loved what he was doing, Dylan recruited the likes of Joan Baez, Ronnie Hawkins, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Roger McGuinn to be a regular part of the Rolling Thunder Revue, while others like Joni Mitchell, Ronee Blakley and Patti Smith popped in and out of the tour for brief stints. Even non-musicians were brought out to read and engage the audience between sets. Poet Allen Ginsberg and playwright Sam Shepard seemed to bring focus to Dylan’s bigger-picture idea of what the revue was meant to represent.
Dylan insisted on keeping ticket prices low, playing smaller theaters, and going to second- and third-tier cities that he’d never or rarely played before—essentially assuring that the promotors and financiers would never make their money back. To add to the chaos and strangeness of the entire affair, filmmaker Martin von Haselberg was always around shooting both the concert footage and behind-the-scenes antics, of which there was much. And truly, Scorsese’s film couldn’t exist without Von Haselberg’s tireless efforts, and Von Haselberg will be the first one to remind you of that. Most of the song and character elements of Dylan’s colossal commercial failure Renaldo and Clara were on display during the tour, but Scorsese never really invokes the name of that film, probably for the best.
Many of the keys players in the tour are interviewed by Scorsese’s team in more recent interviews to provide some degree of perspective and explanation as to Dylan’s mindset at the time and what exactly he was attempting to capture with the Revue. One of the strangest and most interesting stories in the documentary is told by Sharon Stone, whose mother dragged her to a show when she was teenager, to which she wore a Kiss t-shirt, which Dylan spotted and loved. At some point, young Sharon was invited to work backstage on the tour in the costume department, and that’s exactly what she did.
The smartest thing that Scorsese does in this doc is two-fold: he gives a great background perspective of the nation at the time of this tour, and makes a case that Dylan’s every choice about where he would play and for how much was crucial to those smaller cities’ survival in that moment in history. He also allows entire songs to play out (thus the film’s two-hour and 20-minute running time), so we really get a sense of what his current obsessions are as as songwriter, capped off by a blazing version of his yet-unreleased song “Hurricane,” about the unjust imprisonment of champion boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. The passion and conviction on Dylan’s face during the performance chosen for this film is positively explosive.
In the end, I’m not sure Scorsese makes much sense of the Rolling Thunder Revue shows, and I’m not even sure how hard he’s trying to. What he does instead (using Von Haselberg’s footage) is put the viewer in the middle of the energy of both the performances and the “heightened” behavior off stage. And thanks to some truly priceless moments captured behind the scenes and the beautifully restored picture and sound of the concerts, Rolling Thunder Revue is essential viewing for both Dylan enthusiasts and music historians alike. And it also happens to be one of the finest documentaries of the year so far.
The film is streaming on Netflix beginning today.
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