This week, fourteen years after No Direction Home: Bob Dylan, Martin Scorsese’s outstanding 2005 documentary tracking the emergence of an electric poet from the tiny, wiry frame of folk singer Robert Allen Zimmerman, Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese arrives courtesy of Netflix in a few select theaters and in millions of homes around the world. Fourteen years seems about right. The chronology of No Direction Home may end abruptly in 1966 with the sudden blackout of the motorcycle accident that interrupted Dylan’s most ferociously creative period (the one-two punch of Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited in 1965, immediately followed by Blonde on Blonde in 1966), and Rolling Thunder may fire up just a few years later, but culturally, eons had come and gone.
While the sixties raged, Dylan was convalescing. The protest of John Wesley Harding (1967) was gentle, his voice all but humbled. Following a radio-friendly foray into country with Nashville Skyline (1969) and a beautiful but oddly domesticated diary of family life, New Morning (1970), Dylan appeared as the inscrutable but kind of cute Alias in Sam Peckinpah’s 1973 revisionist western, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Planet Waves (1974) was pitched as a comeback, but the true return of the master of his domain came a year later with Blood on the Tracks.
That album sent Dylan and the Band on a tour of arenas typical of the bloated rock scene of the 1970s, and Dylan hated it. He decided to strip it all down, reunite with what the New York Times’ Jon Pareles calls his “early 1960s mentors and peers”—Joan Baez, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Bob Neuwirth, Allen Ginsberg—and, taking inspiration from carnivals and circuses, he set out with his ragtag band in a Winnebago on an uncharted and all but unannounced tour of northeastern nooks and crannies.
As Pareles puts it, the Rolling Thunder Revue was “precisely a manifestation of its era.” The mid-1970s were “unkempt, hairy, hedonistic, improvisational, analog, inefficient—anything but neatly calculated and Instagram-ready. Post-psychedelic and pre-AIDS, they were a continuation of the idealistic, natural 1960s, yet they were also an immediate precursor to the polymorphous, synthetic, role-playing disco era.” When Dylan smeared on a mask of white greasepaint, Baez & Co. followed suit, and as Pareles observes, they looked “like folkies testing glam rock.”