Rolling Thunder Revue: American Multitudes
In the summer of 1976, my parents took me to see the tall ships in New York Harbor. I was ten, and I remember very little about it other than that I went and that the ships, tall, did not disappoint. This harbor celebration, held on the Fourth of July, was for the American bicentennial, which I had heard about in school and on TV for all of 1975. It seemed important to have something to mark it beyond your regular fireworks. We all wore red, white, and blue, but the occasion didn’t feel particularly patriotic. It felt the way a parade or a pageant always felt to me, like a spectacle for which everyone got to wear funny clothes, eat junk food, and make noise. Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese (2019), a documentary about Dylan’s 1975–76 tour with a revolving group of performers, begins with the bicentennial celebration. Scorsese shows the tall ships in New York Harbor but also complicates things right away with footage of a street performer dressed like Uncle Sam, waving a Confederate flag. We see and hear Dylan singing and strumming the familiar verses of “Mr. Tambourine Man” intercut with images of parades and Americana, and then we hear a familiar voice giving a rousing, earnest speech about the promise of the American dream and the nation’s coming celebration. It is Richard Nixon, speaking before the Watergate scandal and his resignation in 1974. Present-day Dylan then appears in an interview, reminding us that, in 1975, Saigon had fallen and the United States finally been chased out of Vietnam. Americans had lost their “sense of conviction for just about anything,” he says. Right away, the film is undermining any singular, simple take on the bicentennial, and marking out America as one of its primary subjects. Here, as in No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (2005), Scorsese’s documentary about Dylan’s origins and 1965 turn from acoustic to electric music, the director curates the archival footage to make an argument about how the tensions of the American cultural moment are a crucial part of the story of Bob Dylan. The singer-songwriter’s own acts of self-invention and reinvention seem to work out American contradictions on the plane of music and performance.
But let me correct myself. This film doesn’t actually open with the tall ships. It opens with clips from Georges Méliès’s 1896 film The Vanishing Lady in which a magician makes a woman disappear and reappear. It is fitting that we begin with magic, as magic works partly by admitting that it is a trick. The fun is that it is a good trick, theatrical. But of course, The Vanishing Lady isn’t a magic show—it is a film of a magic show. Movies, too, are illusion, with the appearance of movement coming from static images shown at twenty-four frames per second. After the glimpses of the Méliès film, we get a version of the documentary’s title, in an old-time font: “Conjuring the Rolling Thunder Revue,” with the subtitle: “A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese.” We have been warned: tricks are afoot, punches are being pulled, and the truth in this film is tricky, elusive, and liable to change with each telling. By indicating that there are fictional things woven in among the real things, the film admits its artifice. This makes it more honest than a straight documentary, which also shapes the truth and has a point of view—so why not play with that?