Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story Review
“When someone’s wearing a mask, they’re gonna tell you the truth. When he’s not wearing a mask, it’s highly unlikely.”
So says Bob Dylan to camera in this new film. But he’s not wearing a mask, or is he?
Bob Dylan abandoned touring in 1966 and didn’t do so again until 1974, when he reunited with The Band. That had been a great success, and you can hear music from this tour on the live album Before the Flood. Many creative artists stand or fall from the output from a peak few years, around a decade at most. By the mid-1970s, it seemed that Dylan would be one such, his reputation based on the series of landmark albums produced in just a few years a decade earlier. But, despite what F. Scott Fitzgerald might have suggested, he had a second act, following his indifferent albums from the early part of the decade with one of his very best, Blood on the Tracks, fuelled in part by the break-up with his wife Sara. The songs from that album and the next, Desire, are key to what became the Rolling Thunder Revue.
The plan was to move away from the large arenas Dylan had played in before, to a series of gigs in smaller venues, in an attempt to reach people who couldn’t get to expensive ticket concerts in larger big-city venues. Dylan and an evolving band of collaborators crossed the country and into Canada, playing fifty-seven shows between October 1975 and May 1976. On the tour were performers such as Joan Baez, Roger McGuinn, Joni Mitchell, with backing musicians such as former Bowie guitarist Mick Ronson and some of the session players on Desire, including violinist Scarlet Rivera, known to keep swords in her dressing room. Also featured were poetry performances by Allen Ginsberg. The stage performances included the use of white facial makeup, inspired by the film Les Enfants du Paradis. The name “Rolling Thunder Revue” came to Dylan after hearing a thunderstorm, though he was later told that “rolling thunder” was a Native American term for truth-telling. However, man in whiteface more than once speaks with forked tongue.
Martin Scorsese’s achievements as a maker of fictional films is undoubted. Yet over the years his contributions to documentary have been distinguished, particularly regarding his twin passions of film and music, which have informed each other at least as far back as when he opened Mean Street with the late Hal Blaine’s famous drum intro to “Be My Baby”. He has one of the great concert films in his CV with The Last Waltz (which featured Dylan as one of the guests at The Band’s farewell concert), and has made long-form documentary portraits of George Harrison and, indeed, Bob Dylan with 2005’s No Direction Home. However, while you could take Rolling Thunder Revue as straight-up documentary, with archive footage (including several of the concert performances) mixed with new interviews, it’s in fact a little different.
Scorsese tips us a few clues from the start, with that subtitle, which is in full A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese. He also begins the film with one of the earliest cinematic conjuring tricks, from Georges Méliès’s 1897 short The Vanishing Lady - Méliès of course being one of the major characters in Scorsese’s film Hugo. We also see other cinematic examples of mask-wearing, including Les Enfants du Paradis, and then we have those interviews. All the participants other than Dylan are given character names in the end credits. One of them is Stefan van Dorp, the director of the original tour footage – but he’s a fictional character played by an actor, Martin Von Haselberg. Another fictional character is “The Politician”, Michael Murphy as his previous character Jim Tanner (from the Robert Altman-directed TV miniseries Tanner '88), who got a free ticket for a show from soon-to-be President Jimmy Carter. Sharon Stone tells an entirely fictitious story of how she met Dylan and helped design the stage costumes. (And I suspect the face makeup wasn’t actually inspired by Kiss.) There are several other examples, but Dylan has always created masks to hide behind. In fact, you could suggest that Bob Dylan is a mask for the man born as Robert Zimmerman. If things are not strictly true, he suggests, does it really matter? In an age where fake news is on the agenda, you may well ask.
This gameplaying doesn’t distract from the concert footage, very well shot and capturing some fine performances from Dylan and his band. This footage hasn’t always been easily available. Much of it previous appeared in Dylan’s 1978 film Renaldo and Clara, which mixed the musical performances with backstage documentary, and dramatic scenes featuring Bob and Sara Dylan and others as fictional characters based on themselves. That film was a critical and commercial failure, both in the 235-minute full version and the 112-minute shorter version which kept the concert footage and dumped most of the rest. Renaldo and Clara has been out of circulation since its cinema release and a handful of European television showings, including one in the UK on Channel 4 after midnight on Boxing Day 1983. Newly restored from its 16mm origins, and with the stereo soundtrack the original film had in certain cinemas, it’s at the heart of this new film and makes it essential viewing for any fan of the music and the part it played in the culture of a particular time and place.
Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story is showing now in selected cinemas and on Netflix.
Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese (2019)
Dir: Martin Scorsese | Cast: Bob Dylan | Writer: N/A