Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story - Review

A tall tale told with its subject at the center, vying for attention in talent-stuffed surroundings.

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Everyone deserves a second chance.

For Bob Dylan, it was the year 1975. After nearly a decade of uninspired retreads (with more than a few great songs in between), Blood on the Tracks became his unequivocal return to greatness. Shedding the plugged-in studio rock of Highway 61 Revisited and Bringing It All Back Home and trading it for an early version of folk-rock, it was his first great singer-songwriter record since Blonde on Blonde. The grooves of Blood on the Tracks are mild, bass heavy organisms that distract with simple arrangements while Dylan pours his lyrical heart over the tape. The sort-of comedown from that 2x platinum return to grace was Desire, the album that most influenced Dylan’s 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue tour. The subject of Martin Scorsese’s musical microscope, Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story is as magnificent a piece of filmmaking as any Dylan doc, with the twist that everything may not be as it seems.

Mingling fictional events with legendary performances is a risky, but fruitful game; Dylan has been doing it for years, so it shouldn’t be surprising when he and Scorsese add made-up directors and coincidences to the road map of his 1975-76 tour. Dubbed the “Rolling Thunder Revue” by Dylan on a whim, and later revisited in the film through a visit to the titular Native American’s reservation, the tour consisted of 57 shows. The purpose was to give Dylan, an international icon by then, a chance to commune with the people.

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With as many as 18 players on stage at once, many of them previous collaborators and stars like Joan Baez and Mick Ronson (the lead guitarist for David Bowie’s backing band at the time), there was a certain amount of sound in the way of Dylan’s desired connection. Captured through extreme close-ups, the concerts are shot in the intimate detail the concept demands, with shots lingering on Dylan and Baez’s faces for just a little too long. What’s seen in the eyes, the sweat, the grinning features that go unnoticed on magazine covers or from the cheap seats, a sense of displacement and total confidence in the ramshackle idea. The footage, commissioned by Dylan for use in the poorly-received art film Renaldo and Clara, released in 1978, is comprised of outtakes, many of which have never been seen. We see Dylan’s clown-painted face, and his many collaborators in full glory; if Rolling Thunder Revue were simply a concert film, it would be one of the most visually striking films to crash the genre.

Scorcese’s influence is most apparent in the weight of his guests. Dylan himself appears as he did in No Direction Home, Scorsese’s 2005 documentary, to kick dust into an already crowded story. He begins by saying he remembers nothing about Rolling Thunder, because he wasn’t born yet. Various Dylan-isms like “A man wearing a mask will tell you the truth” and “Sharon Stone wore a Kiss shirt to one of my shows” are interspersed in between factual events, making a game of discerning between what’s real and what’s not. This theme would fall flat if not for the exuberant stage performances, several of which are shown in their entirety.

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A live version of Desire’s “Isis” is the peak, showing a guitar-less Dylan (!) yelping and screeching one of his trademark story songs with a jam-band crew behind him. It reminds of The Band, of the countless artists Dylan would inspire through The Basement Tapes, ushering in a new wave of rock that touched everything from punk to the Beatles. It’s chronicled exceptionally well here, with dozens of WTF moments sprinkled throughout, like a dapper-looking Joni Mitchell previewing a version of “Coyote” with Dylan accompanying on guitar, and a slowed-down version of “Simple Twist of Fate” that’s likely to water your eyes. For as ambitious as it is, Rolling Thunder Revue finds plenty of time for intimacy.

Dylan as a shape-shifting musical icon has been captured at least half a dozen times on film before. D.A. Pennebaker’s seminal Don’t Look Back took him off the stage and characterized him through interactions, while others have looked to document or fictionalize (Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There). Either has failed to represent Dylan as he was in a certain period, neglecting his on-stage charisma or his knack for drama. Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese somehow finds room for two massive personalities to tell their stories: Dylan his own, warped and dried epic poem, and Scorsese his awestruck history gazing. With their talents mixed, and placed alongside footage from one of Dylan’s best periods, they result in a film as dangerous as the music that inspired it.

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There’s a look of evilness in Dylan’s eyes as he sings “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” with Roger McGuinn at the end of the film. It’s the look that made him, the eyes with something either stupid or genius behind them, hiding behind a simply stunning folk song. When the film cuts to Allan Ginsberg delivering a paragraph of 70s-themed motivation mantras, we come to understand the time those eyes were living in. “Genius is a funny word,” says the fictional director Stefan Van Dorp at the heart of the film, but Dylan always gave reasons to believe he was one; while never abandoning the idea that he could just be high out of his mind.