The ideal audience for director Martin Scorsese’s curious new Netflix documentary – which boasts the party-sub-sized official title Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese – is unquestionably composed of passionate Bob Dylan fans. This is typical when a new volume in the ever-burgeoning compendium of “Dylanology” is birthed into the world. Elvis might be the closest thing to an American metaphor in the rock-star flesh – as illustrated in Eugene Jarecki’s brilliant documentary from last year, The King – but Dylan’s cult of personality is arguably deeper, more defensible, and more sophisticated. (His devotees would certainly argue as much.) With its plethora of vintage concert footage, wild backstage encounters, and patented Dylan mystique, Rolling Thunder will naturally appeal to hardcore fans of the aged folk god.
However, even a viewer who knows virtually nothing about Bob Dylan or the titular tour that crisscrossed America and Canada in 1975-’76 is likely to find Rolling Thunder Revue strangely fascinating. There’s a moment when such uninitiated souls may start to suspect that Scorsese is up to something much weirder and more rascally than the mere reverent documentation. That point comes when Sharon Stone, of all people – allegedly absorbed into the tour chiefly for being a gorgeous 19-year-old model in a KISS T-shirt – relates a droll anecdote. In a rare private moment with Stone, Dylan purportedly plunked out “Just Like a Woman” on the piano, revealing that he wrote it just for her. Dylanites will already be smirking in amusement at this point, but Stone delivers the punchline for the newbies: As another member of the tour later broke the news to her, Dylan had composed that song almost a decade prior. (It was, in fact, the fourth U.S. single from his legendary, double-platinum 1967 rock LP, Blonde on Blonde.)
It’s a great little yarn that epitomizes Dylan’s propensity for good-natured historical revisionism and mischievous bullshitting. It’s also the moment in the film when the scales may start to fall away from the eyes of some viewers. Did this episode really happen? Wouldn’t a starry-eyed Dylan fan recognize one of his biggest singles? Wait: Did Stone ever actually tour with the Revue? Something about the story smells, but that fishiness is by design. Dylan purportedly conceived of the tour’s spirit as something halfway between commedia dell'arte and a traveling medicine show. In fact, there are several, conflicting stories about the etymology of that name, “Rolling Thunder Revue,” and Scorsese’s documentary does little to clarify the historical record. Indeed, the filmmaker seems to have picked up Dylan’s taste for enigmatic mythologizing and amplified its puckish qualities.
Rolling Thunder is as much a work of navel-gazing fiction as it is a proper concert film or rose-colored retrospective. It’s a cinematic puzzle cube steeped in Boomer nostalgia, one that manages to cunningly subvert the self-fellating tendency that characterizes most long, strange trips into 1960s-’70s music culture. Compared to Scorsese’s last Dylan documentary, the more conventional and encyclopedic No Direction Home (2005), the director’s latest feels both focused and loose. It’s a verité lazy-river float through a narrow period in Dylan’s career – and, more generally, past an intriguing inflection point in rock celebrity and American culture generally. (Tellingly, Rolling Thunder scrambles the chronology a little to lead with the Bicentennial and its enforced moment of national self-reflection.)
Not that anyone thought much of the Rolling Thunder Revue at the time. The sprawling, evolving tour was considered a financial failure for its promoters, and its artistic impact was debatable, notwithstanding the impressive lineup and the novelty of a post-breakout Dylan playing smaller, scruffier venues, including gymnasiums and a women’s prison. However, the Revue quickly entered the canon of Dylanology thanks to its live recordings (and countless bootlegs), not to mention Renaldo and Clara, the 1978 experimental film that resulted from the tour. Directed by Dylan and co-written with Sam Shepard, Renaldo is a kind of concert film/meta-fiction hybrid – much like Rolling Thunder itself. The 1978 feature is a notoriously esoteric fragment of Dylan apocrypha, mainly because it became virtually impossible to screen after its initial release and critical drubbing. (Renaldo remains unavailable to consumers in its original form.)
Constructed partly from the B-roll footage of Dylan’s cinematic flop, Scorsese’s film is accordingly the closest thing to full exhumation of Renaldo that the world is likely to see. Thankfully, the director mostly allows the performances to speak for themselves. Captured in 16mm color by Renaldo’s cinematographers Howard Alk, David Meyers, and Paul Goldsmith, the footage looks especially gorgeous during the live concert sequences. Scorsese permits the original long, sustained closeups of the performers to play out without interruption, presenting songs in their entirety – mostly hits like “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” “Tangled Up in Blue,” “Simple Twist of Fate,” and “Hurricane.” It’s ecstatically focused stuff, if only as a means to convey the bottled-lightning wizardry of Dylan and his fellow travelers – including Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Roger McGuinn, Ronee Blakely, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott – absolutely killing it onstage. There’s a moment when the limo driver for oddball tour violinist Scarlet Rivera confesses that he’s never been to a rock concert before. When he enthuses that the spiritual connection he felt between the performers and the audience was positively electric, it’s hard not to concur.
There’s also an embarrassment of fascinating (maybe) candid footage captured in backstage rooms, on the tour bus, and in otherwise banal moments between shows. At times, it has the feeling of a faintly grotesque carnival, seething with whimsy and weirdness, like a post-Aquarian Hunter S. Thompson essay brought to life. It also recalls the whirlwind of carousing, jockeying, and low-key assholery in Orson Welles’ posthumous The Other Side of the Wind (2018) – albeit with less ravenous cynicism. Rolling Stone writer Larry “Ratso” Sloman roams around, pestering everyone with his needling questions and ingratiating manner. Poet Allen Ginsberg commands the viewer’s attention just by talking, his wonderful words flowing forth like a spring of mellow, radical wisdom. (The punchline: Ginsberg’s stage time keeps getting cut by the promoters as the tour progresses, to make time for music acts that will sell more tickets.) Dylan strolls around like a troubadour in a cafeteria full of restive Iroquois, singing “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” while tribal leaders looks on awkwardly. And then there’s the anonymous concertgoer, who, after the Revue finishes their last song at some low-rent New England civic center, just breaks down and sobs, inconsolably and silently, as though seized by a post-Watergate inversion of Beatlemania.
It takes a little bit for Rolling Thunder to find its footing, but after some throat-clearing, Scorsese settles into a gratifying rhythm, alternating the stage performances with sections that blend offstage footage and contemporary interviews. Solely as a concert film, it’s engaging stuff that more than justifies its 142-minute running time – there’s a thoughtfulness and modesty to the director’s approach here that isn’t evident in his glossy, frenetic Rolling Stones feature Shine a Light (2008). Underneath the revolutionary spirit, however, there’s still that strain of blatant, occasionally acerbic bullshit that runs through the whole enterprise. Other than the concert footage, everything in Rolling Thunder is an unsorted jumble of truth and lies, which seems to be exactly how the director and singer-songwriter both prefer it. When asked about the tour’s origins early in the film, a present-day Dylan answers in his vaguely testy grand-uncle way, “I don’t remember a thing about it. I wasn’t even born.” OK then.
Scorsese’s film embraces this maddening meta-inscrutability, turning it into a midway magic trick with a folk-rock soundtrack. The tell is an initially inexplicable insert of an 1896 Georges Méliès short featuring a stage illusionist who makes a woman vanish and reappear. Scorsese has crafted a similar mirage around a core of musical truth: a hypnotic, self-reflexive gestalt object, difficult to pick apart but devilishly easy to just kick back and relish. It’s infinitely subtler than the recent Elton John biopic-fantasia Rocketman – but just as madcap in its protest-song way, and equally enamored with the notion of mythmaking. For a Scorsese film, Rolling Thunder is unexpectedly smirking and slippery; a rambling, docu-fiction voyage in the spirit of Robert Greene and late-period Welles. There’s a little of filmmaker Penny Lane’s coy and crafty quasi-docs (Our Nixon; Nuts!) in there, too.
The central fictional conceit in Rolling Thunder is that the film’s 1975-’76 footage was shot by British director “Stefan Van Dorp,” here played with scabrous world-weariness by performance artist Martin Von Haselberg. Van Dorp is positioned as the vaguely skeptical outsider in the tour’s entourage, and in interviews he’s perpetually undermining other members’ recollections and destabilizing the viewer’s expectations. He asserts that Dylan barely spoke to him during either the fall 1975 or spring 1976 legs; but also claims that the musician co-opted his European style of smoking cigarettes almost immediately. It’s an unflattering characterization – Dylan as an aloof mimic, constantly absorbing affectations yet fundamentally unknowable – but also one that’s consistent with the man’s established persona. (And, of course, one that Dylan tacitly approved, given that he agreed to appear in the film.) Perhaps it’s for the best that Dylan has kept Renaldo and Clara hidden away from the public for so long, given that its recycled and castoff maybe-falsehoods play quite well from the hazy, post-truth vantage point of 2019. When Michael Murphy eventually appears as one of his old characters, U.S. Rep. Jack Tanner from Robert Altman’s HBO miniseries Tanner ’88, Scorsese’s film finally tilts into some kind of meta-fictional New Hollywood cinematic universe. The presence of Sam Shepard – who characterizes himself as a glorified roadie, rather than fessing up to his role as a scripter for the fictional 1970s footage – adds an additional layer of morbid uncanniness, given that the acclaimed playwright and actor passed away in 2017. Naturally, there are already explainers online that tease the historical fact in Rolling Thunder from the winking fiction, but why would anyone want to break the film’s trickster-god magic by analyzing it to death?
Scorsese and editors Damian Rodriguez and David Tedeschi use the you-are-there performances as handholds of truth in a sea of fairy tales and fish stories. Sometimes the con is obvious: When, for example, former lovers Dylan and Baez share a moment that’s ripe with gentle romantic subtext, it feels oddly staged, as though the artists were tweaking the gossip-mongers. Of course, given the power of Photoshop and modern digital-effects trickery, one should probably regard all the “obvious” vintage material with a skeptical eye. Whenever Ginsberg appears, one starts to wonder if one is seeing the real deal, or perhaps just comedian David Cross’ uncanny mimicry with faux-16mm embellishments. Cross previously portrayed the poet in Todd Haynes’ 2007 Dylan “anti-biopic” I’m Not There, which similarly understood the centrality of storytelling (read: lies) to the musician’s identity and appeal. Rolling Thunder isn’t remotely as audacious as Haynes’ feature, but within the limits of an ostensible “straight” concert film, Scorsese has crafted an irresistible mosaic of truth and myth. After all, who are you going to believe? Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan or your own lying eyes?