Martin Scorsese has made brilliant music documentaries over the years, but none as playful or inventive as Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese, to give this film about Dylan’s wacky 1975 tour its full, revealing title. Anyone expecting a concert film like Scorsese’s The Last Waltz or a seriously penetrating documentary like No Direction Home, about Dylan’s early career, should revise their expectations. Rolling Thunder Revue is just as dazzling but wildly different. Full of eye-opening musical performances, the film also sparkles with tongue-in-cheek humor, and features contemporary interviews that are often far from what they seem. You have to go back to After Hours to find a Scorsese pic with a similarly mischievous wit.
The essence of the film is archival footage of onstage performances from the Rolling Thunder tour, which Dylan conceived of as a roving band of troubadours popping up in small venues. But the movie is also an audacious fictional gloss on that moment in time and in a career.
The musicians included Joan Baez, Roger McGuinn and T-Bone Burnett, with poet Allen Ginsberg along as a kind of shaman or hanger-on, depending on whom you ask. The archival performances, vibrantly restored to bright ’70s colors, are serious, intimate and often glorious. There are many complete songs, often shot in extreme close-up from the stage. Sometimes Dylan chants as much as he sings, as he does on his classic “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” Many other songs were lyrical and new at the time, including “Isis,” “A Simple Twist of Fate” and “One More Cup of Coffee.” The violinist Scarlet Rivera, swaying by his side, is so integral to the energetic electric sound that you wonder why she hasn’t been a major star for all the decades since then.
But the tour and the film are defined by the revue’s eccentricities and masquerade qualities, including Dylan singing while in a clear plastic mask. “I don’t remember a thing about Rolling Thunder,” Dylan says in an interview done for the pic. “It happened so long ago I wasn’t even born.” An anonymous offscreen interviewer responds to Dylan’s evasion and hyperbole by saying, “Go with that,” and the entire film echoes that fantastical, unanalytic approach.
There are clues at the very start. Scorsese begins with a clip from Georges Melies’ 1896 short The Vanishing Lady, also known as The Conjuring of a Woman, in which a magician makes a woman disappear. That snippet is followed by the pic’s full title, with its emphasis on how much this is a Dylan story shaped by Scorsese, and by a title card reading, “Conjuring the Rolling Thunder Revue.” The intro is a hint at the sleight of hand to come as the film refuses to sort out history from flat-out fiction any more than Dylan does.
“Life is about creating yourself,” Dylan says here. Unlike the Dylan who talks about his past in No Direction Home, he largely avoids eye contact with the camera while possibly telling some truths and definitely spinning some tales. It is another manifestation of the shape-shifting and self-invention that flows through his career.
Scorsese uses news footage from the period to set this invention against the realistic, discordant backdrop of America in 1975. Nixon had resigned the year before, and the country was ramping up to celebrate the bicentennial in 1976. The image of a country in crisis, searching for an identity, suits Dylan’s own morphing persona and also also creates a parallel with the country’s current disoriented sense of who we are. The film doesn’t make too much of that comparison; it merely presents the evidence, sparingly, for anyone who wants to make those connections.
Sam Shepard had gone along to write a screenplay for Renaldo and Clara, the fiction film Dylan was making simultaneously. “It almost had the feel of a circus,” Shepard, who died two years ago, says about the tour in a relatively recent interview included here. That circus was so defiantly off-the-beaten track that in some of the most amusing scenes, Ginsberg reads poetry and Dylan sings to a room full of women playing Mahjong.
Dylan and Baez return to their folksy roots together on “Blowin’ in the Wind.” But her best scenes are offstage. In archival clips, we see her in a hat and moustache pretending to be Bob, and in her contemporary interview she talks about how astonishing it was to suddenly be treated with such deference while in that disguise.
Scorsese’s boldest gambit comes in fictional interviews woven among — and frankly overwhelming — actual ones. People playing characters are identified as their real-life selves onscreen, and as characters only in the closing credits. Sharon Stone, who plays The Beauty Queen, according to those credits, says that when she was 19, she and her mom were waved into a Rolling Thunder concert by Dylan, which led to her joining the tour as a backstage assistant. What are the odds we wouldn’t have heard about that before now? Jim Gianopulos — yes, that Jim Gianopulos, the current chairman and CEO of Paramount — talks about having packaged the tour. His character is The Promoter. The Politician is Michael Murphy as Jack Tanner, from Robert Altman’s series Tanner ’88.
Dylan himself makes the hilarious claim that his white-face paint was inspired by having gone to a KISS concert in Queens with Rivera. In addition to showing KISS, Scorsese slyly and without comment includes a shot of Jean-Louis Barrault as the white-faced Pierrot in Children of Paradise, the inspiration usually cited. Shepard, in Rolling Thunder Logbook, his indispensable and poetic account of the tour published in 1977, recalls that when Dylan first talked to him about joining the troupe, he mentioned Children of Paradise.
Dylanists can probably go on for years sorting out fact from fiction, but that wouldn’t be in the spirit of Dylan’s Rolling Thunder or of Scorsese’s gleeful take on it. Better to simply step into the carnival, in an exuberant film that is one artistic master’s vision of another.
Production companies: Sikelia Productions, Grey Water Park Productions
Cast: Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, Sam Shepard, Allen Ginsberg
Director: Martin Scorsese
Producers: Jeff Rosen, Margaret Bodde
Director of photography (interviews): Ellen Kuras
Editor: David Tedeschi
Casting: Ellen Lewis