Another Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese

The Daily — Jun 11, 2019
Bob Dylan on the Rolling Thunder Revue tour by Ken Regan, via Netflix

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 TimesJon 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.”

Throughout the tour, Dylan was also shooting a movie, Renaldo and Clara, a docufiction hybrid running nearly four hours that would be released to across-the-board pans in 1978. As Andy Greene reports for Rolling Stone, the unused and rarely (if ever) seen 16 mm footage proved invaluable to Scorsese and his team, who have cleaned it up and incorporated clips into Rolling Thunder. “Like No Direction Home,” writes Greene, “Scorsese was given the footage by Dylan’s team and was allowed to craft whatever kind of movie he wanted.”

What Scorsese wanted, as NPR’s Ann Powers notes, was to go “with the blurring of fact and fiction, magical myth and droning reality, that Dylan put at the center of his work then (and now). To that end, he invents characters, reconstructs timelines, and generally blurs factual/fictional boundaries . . . Much screen time is given to contemporary interviewees who were not in fact present on the tour, and who are playing composite or completely imagined characters.” One of these is U.S. representative Jack Tanner from Michigan, the central figure of director Robert Altman and writer Garry Trudeau’s miniseries Tanner ’88. The faux Democratic presidential candidate is played by Michael Murphy, and Sean Burns, writing for WBUR, can’t decide whether Scorsese’s “toying with a fictional politician’s empty banalities” signals that “we’re watching another gassy boomer hagiography or a vicious parody of the genre.”

Filmmaker’s Vadim Rizov, too, wonders whether Rolling Thunder is “nostalgia or a refutation of that impulse? Probably both. Scorsese’s career has, in part, continuously functioned as an ongoing annotation of the rock staples that apparently powered him through the ’60s and ’70s,” and “this film seems guilty in gratifying that impulse, worrying itself into fiction in its anxiety about the hero worship it’s actively practicing.”

Little White LiesDavid Jenkins argues that, yes, “there are some slippery maneuvers and some fudging of the facts, but where this thing works like gangbusters is in the remastered concert footage.” Dylan “belts out every song as if singing [it] for the last time.” New Yorker editor David Remnick, an unabashed fan, caught the Rolling Thunder Revue live in Massachusetts on November 22, 1975. “If you’re lucky,” he writes, “at some point in your life you get to witness some flashing fraction of what music has to offer. Accidents of fate and the moment. I was too young to see Dylan’s early acoustic performances, his electric breakthrough at Newport, or the 1966 British tour with the Band. And there’s no time machine, only tape, to get me to the Regal for B. B. King, in 1964, to the Apollo for James Brown, in 1962, much less to one of Billie Holiday’s final concerts at Carnegie Hall, in 1956. Your luck and your time come when they come. My lucky moment was the Rolling Thunder Revue at a college gym forty-five years ago in New England; for those who missed it, your time has come.”

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