Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese dropped on Netflix back in 2019 to generally favourable reviews. It’s the second documentary Scorsese has made on Bob Dylan, after No Direction Home, which was about the first five years of his career. I’ve never been a Dylan fan, so I may not be the best person to review this—but here goes…
Dylan has always been a trickster and a liar, and the Dylan on view in this film is no exception—at one point he claims “I wasn’t even born!” when this tour happened. Perhaps Dylan’s jokey comment is a reference to his much-derided conversion to born-again Christianity soon after this tour, which he has since distanced himself from. The film uses tons of archival footage from his Rolling Thunder Revue tour, with wrap around interviews with Dylan and various people from the tour. However, it’s also littered with fake interviews with a fake filmmaker, Sharon Stone and Michael Murphy’s Jack Tanner… from Robert Altman’s Tanner ’88. Dylan also refers to the fictional characters in his interviews, so what is truth and what is fiction becomes very blurry.
The tour itself was about “playing for the people” (Dylan and the ragtag team of performers played smaller towns than usual, and for smaller audiences), but Dylan also performed in heavy make-up consisting of white face and eyeliner, and often started the show with a plastic mask, so there was a deliberate theatricality to the proceedings. Dylan was heavily into Marcel Carné’s Les Enfants du Paradis, so that played into the idea of the mask and makeup. There is a very funny story about the band’s violinist, Scarlet Rivera, taking him to a KISS concert being the event that prompted the makeup… is it true or another one of Bob’s lies? We will never know.
The film is a fascinating look at this very strange tour where the entourage just grew as it went along. The entourage is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the whole saga. Sam Shepherd is there, who was hired essentially to write the “script” for Renaldo and Clara, which is (depending on the cut) a four-hour surrealistic concert movie that Bob Dylan was making on the tour, and the only feature film Dylan ever directed. Allen Ginsberg was pretty much along for the ride for the entire tour, doing some poetry as one of the support acts. Roger McGuinn of the Byrds (who made their name on their jangly Dylan covers) appears—he was struggling to get that solo career off the ground that never really happened outside of live concerts. Patti Smith pops up for a scene, Joni Mitchell shows up, Harry Dean Stanton is hanging around, and in Dylan’s band he has Mick Ronson from David Bowie and the Spiders from Mars… which is an odd pairing.
This will be catnip for all the Dylanologists out there, and it’s well done, providing an interesting insight into that “wacky mind” of Bob Dylan. The film’s big failure is that Scorsese consents to Dylan’s own manipulation of his image and legacy, which is why D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back will always be the most insightful and definitive portrait of Bob Dylan.
The disc includes interviews with Scorsese; the editor, David Tedeschi (who has been Scorsese’s long-term editor for his documentaries ever since his The Blues documentary series); and Larry “Ratso” Sloman, who wrote an account of his experience on the tour. Some extra performance footage is included, plus a demonstration of the extensive restoration work done on the archival footage, which was in pretty rough shape, and the film’s trailer. The booklet serves up an essay by novelist Dana Spiotta, excerpts from Shepherd’s own account of the tour, and some poetry written on the tour from Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman.