“Rolling Thunder Revue,” Reviewed: Martin Scorsese’s Slippery Chronicle of Bob Dylan in Concert
In January and February of 1974, Bob Dylan embarked on his first concert tour following an eight-year hiatus after a devastating motorcycle accident that he suffered in 1966. It was a reunion tour with the Band, commemorated in the double album “Before the Flood.” During that tour, Dylan set a theme that continues in his concerts to this day: he pulverized the familiar original arrangements and moods of his songs and made each performance seem like a musical re-creation. In the process, he made live performance itself seem like a radical act of self-reinvention.
The tour featured in Martin Scorsese’s new film about Dylan, “Rolling Thunder Revue” (released June 12th on Netflix and in theatres), took place more than a year and a half later, in late 1975, and marked an even greater step in that direction. This time, Dylan didn’t just reconfigure his music—he reconceived the very nature of a concert tour. He assembled the rock equivalent of a big band, made up of about a dozen musicians (with the prominent additions of the violinist Scarlet Rivera and the guitarist Mick Ronson), plus others who came along and performed—most significantly, Joan Baez—or who joined in during the tour, notably Joni Mitchell. Sam Shepard came, and so did the poets Allen Ginsberg, Anne Waldman, and Peter Orlovsky; they also took part in the performances. The group travelled by bus—Dylan himself did some of the driving—and a crew of documentary filmmakers, including Howard Alk, who had made two major documentaries in the late nineteen-sixties, “American Revolution 2” and “The Murder of Fred Hampton,” filmed the proceedings. In conjunction with the tour, Dylan also produced a collage-like movie, “Renaldo and Clara,” featuring some of the concert footage, in which he and his wife, Sara, played fictional characters (the title roles), and another musician on the tour, Ronnie Hawkins, played a character named Bob Dylan.
For the concert footage alone, Scorsese’s “Rolling Thunder Revue” is exhilarating and even essential viewing. (I’d estimate that about half of the movie, which runs two hours and twenty-two minutes, features musical performances by Dylan and others.) The shows reflected the carnivalesque tumult that surrounded them, and the musical reinvention was even more extreme than that of “Before the Flood.” The collaborations add distinctive new flavors to Dylan’s music (Rivera’s violin seems, all by itself, to turn the large group into an orchestra), and the musical reunion with Baez displays their exalted sense of shared artistic purpose.
Yet there’s much more to Scorsese’s film than the concerts, and not for the better. The film’s most tantalizing, frustrating elements are scenes of Dylan and the group in rehearsal, which are all too brief. It is as if Scorsese were illustrating the mere fact that they rehearsed rather than looking with any curiosity at the processes behind the group’s real-time development of musical ideas. By contrast, the most exciting scene in the film features Mitchell jamming on her song “Coyote” with Dylan and Roger McGuinn—rather, teaching it to them—in Gordon Lightfoot’s Toronto apartment; that impromptu performance continues in a tightrope walk of an unexpected, extended take that catches the miracle of spontaneous artistic inspiration.
The movie features some boilerplate historical contextualizing, using archival footage: the resignation of Richard Nixon, the attempted assassination of President Gerald Ford, the downtown Manhattan festivities for the Bicentennial, the fall of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War. There are brief clips of Dylan gathering musicians at a special evening at Gerde’s Folk City, where he’d performed in the early sixties. (Patti Smith, who declined to join Dylan’s tour, performed that night.) But these bits of background have the paradoxical effect of seeming both too short and too long—too substantial to be merely illustrative, too evocative of a wide range of experiences to be plugged in as background.
“Rolling Thunder Revue” also features clips of Dylan now, in a new filmed interview conducted by his manager, Jeff Rosen (who’s also one of the film’s producers), in which the singer at first drolly attempts to deflect discussions of the tour. He jokes that he doesn’t remember it at all; he jokes that it happened so long ago that he “wasn’t even born.” He does offer a few jovial scraps of reminiscence throughout, and one wonders what would have happened if he had been interviewed by someone more confrontational. I can’t blame Dylan for his reticence—or for the decision to have the interview be conducted from the inside. It’s the reasonable response of someone who’s still moving forward—and resisting the mythology and the pull of his past glories, even as they’re still being celebrated, packaged, and commercialized. (A fourteen-CD set of the concert performances was released by Sony in conjunction with the film.)
“Rolling Thunder Revue” includes interviews, recent and archival, with many other people involved in the tour, and some of the sound bites provide welcome insights. Baez recalls her ambivalence about participating in the tour and describes the artistic freedom it offered her. Hawkins talks about the tour’s turbulence. Ginsberg speaks of poetry and politics, mythology and philosophy. Waldman discusses Ginsberg’s obsession with Dylan, and so does Dylan himself. The film also includes extended discussions with Rubin (Hurricane) Carter, a boxer who was wrongly convicted of murder and whom Dylan, writing and performing the song “Hurricane” (co-written by Jacques Levy), worked to free. Yet the inclusion of these interviews and archival materials amid the concert performances makes the film snippety and jumpy; the elbowed-in and overlaid bits of information have the over-all effect of reducing the extraordinary sequences of performance to mere interludes, as if in fear that the music isn’t sufficiently entertaining on its own or that viewers need the background stories supplied by factoids to connect with it. See, by comparison, “Amazing Grace,” Sydney Pollack’s exemplary 2018 film centered on two concerts by Aretha Franklin, which allows the wondrous archival footage to exist entirely on its own. And see Jody Rosen’s report in the Times this week—about a 2008 fire at the Universal archive in which a vast amount of master tapes and outtakes by such historic artists as Franklin, Baez, Chuck Berry, Louis Armstrong, and John Coltrane were definitively lost—for a reminder that the concert and rehearsal footage in “Rolling Thunder Revue” is a precious treasure, its very existence a sort of miracle.
There is a cliché that has regained currency with the release of Scorsese’s film: Bob Dylan the trickster, the slippery and malleable figure whose first trick may have been the pseudonym under which he made his fame. In “Rolling Thunder Revue,” Scorsese seems eager not only to highlight this side of Dylan but to participate in his tricks. Interspersed among the film’s authentic interviews, for instance, are mockumentary scenes that concoct fictional details about the tour. Martin von Haselberg plays the role of Stefan Van Dorp, a fictional director who is presented as responsible for filming the archival footage. The real-life movie executive Jim Gianopulos plays Jim Gianopulos, the (fictional) businessperson behind the tour. Sharon Stone plays herself and talks about her (fictitious) acquaintance with Dylan in the course of the tour. Dylan himself takes part in these games, referring on several occasions to Van Dorp’s and Stone’s presence and actions during the tour. Scorsese even places these characters amid the archival footage, dubbing the voice of Van Dorp into documentary sequences, blurring the historical record to match the fictional conceit.
There’s no intrinsic reason why this combination of documentary and fiction should be harmful or deceptive, any more than interventionist approaches to archival footage are intrinsically less valid than modest ones. The movie announces its playfulness with a remark from Dylan to the effect that a person is apt to tell the truth when wearing a mask and to lie without one. It opens with a clip from an 1896 film by Georges Méliès, the primordial filmmaker of special effects and onscreen magic. And the film’s arm’s-length approach in one sense serves an important purpose, extricating the music from the inevitably gossip-heavy stories of the road and the personal pain that went into them. (The marital crisis that Dylan and his wife, Sara, were confronting at the time was reflected in his song “Sara” and was featured in “Renaldo and Clara,” but is not addressed in “Rolling Thunder Revue.”)
But too often Scorsese seems to be joining Dylan in dancing delicately around the past. After seeing “Rolling Thunder Revue,” I watched “Renaldo and Clara” for the first time—and I wish I hadn’t, because its strengths only serve to highlight Scorsese’s failures. Dylan and Sara, as the fictional Renaldo and Clara—a couple whose relationship is thrown into turmoil by a visit from another woman, the so-called Woman in White (played by Baez)—perform in scenes of psychodramatic intensity and romantic anguish. “Renaldo and Clara” also features a remarkable set of concert performances from the Rolling Thunder tour—and Dylan (who edited the film with Alk) treats them with a finer and keener touch than Scorsese does. There are more concert images that capture the complex tension and synergy of a band at work, more of a sense of spontaneous wonder. The film—despite some conspicuous longueurs, slack performances, unkempt cinematography—is a passionate and relentless effort to connect the performances of music to the lives and activities with which they coincided. “Rolling Thunder Revue,” by contrast, is built around the desire to show something, to say something, to reveal something of Dylan’s process—but not too much. It’s not a doomed mission but it’s a delicate and a difficult one, and the project collapses under the weight of its contradictory goals and its scattershot strategies to meet them.