Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story – Review
by Thomas Slattery
Director: Martin Scorsese
Stars: Bob Dylan, Allen Ginsberg, Patti Smith and more
Netflix’s new Bob Dylan documentary, produced by Martin Scorsese about Bob Dylan’s 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue tour. Rolling Thunder Revue was the name given to a loose collective of musicians touring New England during the “Fall” of 1975. It stepped off stage and into rock and roll history as soon as the first leg wrapped up in December 1975.
You know the myth, Bob Dylan is a refugee from an America that ended before color tv, an America far stranger, more shattered, more fragmented than today, more interesting too. An America you can feel when you read Kerouac, an America Steinbeck desperately tried to capture when he saw it was going to be swept away, the fever dream that is the myth of progress. An America of Joe Hill, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and Fort Sumpter too, of continent-spanning railways, of manifest destiny, when men could still recall the western states being pacified. An America of the gilded age built on the backs of immigrants, sharecroppers and slaves. An America that could never survive the rise of Corporations and Corporate life, an outlaw America when it wasn’t about rejecting authority but existing outside it, and they are very different things. An America sentenced to death by the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, that stitched the seams of anodyne America together. A mythic, magical America that might still be out there, down some highway, beyond the mountains. If you hit the coast you’ve gone too far. That America, wherever it is, was gone off maps and off mainstream TV by the time the Rolling Thunder Revue arrives.
Rolling Thunder, a tour, a trip around that disappeared world. Concerts in towns that were bypassed and soon to be forgotten. Dylan, driving the bus, the bandleader, the archaeologist of the recent past. His backing band, Guam, consists of major stars and street musicians. Dylan, on that endless highway, radio transmitters trying to pick up frequencies from 10 years, 20 years ago. Back further still, hearing echoes of songs that blew across the Atlantic with the Coffin ships, songs from the deep underground. What’s to be said, the man stepped in his own myth.
The documentary starts with a brief interview with Dylan himself, where he uncharacteristically breaks character to admit he can’t remember the tour and that “life is not about finding yourself, it is about creating yourself.”
You know the myth. This is 9 months after Blood on the Tracks is released. If you release the “greatest divorce album of all time” while you are still married to your wife, things are going to be at least a little awkward over breakfast. You too, might find yourself driving a bus through New England looking for the road back to the home you had before.
The documentary footage is gorgeous, in those warm blurry colours of the 1970s. A cast assembles for a tour like no other.
You know the myth, people say Dylan was trying to recreate the Greenwich village he found in the early 1960s but it’s more than that possibly, they say, he’s trying to recreate who he could have been if he’d taken a different route. A less amphetamine fueled route, a road with some sort of direction home. If he had gone from folkie to folk-rocker without re-inventing rock and roll in between.
The interview footage tells us how Dylan brought in a European Arthouse director to film the tour. The director of the original footage, Stefan Van Dorp, explains how he got the role, how is European sensibilities were challenged by an America already rusting into decline. The interviews reveal how Allen Ginsberg slowly shifted from on stage poet to head roadie. The interviews reveal just how little money rock and roll can make.
You know the myth because the myth has overtaken the tour since the day the first leg of the tour ended. The Martin Scorsese “documentary” won’t tell you much about the tour and it playfully jostles truth out of the way to tell a better story but if you ignore everything else, and just focus on the concert and jam session footage, you can see a musician at the height of his powers. The film celebrates the back stage, late-night group sessions as much as it celebrates on stage performances. These late sessions anywhere in the world give rise to communal folks songs. The ones where everyone contributes a melody, a phrase, a verse, where songs older than we can fathom are handed down from generation to generation, shifting, adapting, evolving. Dylan comes from an era when folk and blues could compete on the radio with rock and roll, before rock and roll became rock and took over the world. Dylan still lives on the FM dial switching between those stations.
Forget the myth, watch the footage and see the only truth that matters about Dylan, it’s about the songs. Dylan, as far as anyone can tell, is a serious student of song. He is a student of the form of folk songs, and how Irish (and Scottish) folk music could be mixed with blues. He knows the roots of songs, he has grafted his own songs onto those handed down. By the mid 1970s Dylan was trying a new style of songwriting, inspired by art classes he undertook in New York. The songs like Isis, Romance in Durango and Hurricane fit perfectly into the folk tradition of narrative songs, they are far closer to the pastiche folk narratives of the BasementTapes than they are New Morning or Planet Waves. Rolling Thunder is a celebration of song in a way concert documentaries rarely are. The interviews are lies but the songs, they are still out there, angelic.
In 1975, perhaps Dylan just needed a stage where he could feel at home. Does it matter? The why isn’t important. It never has been. Martin Scorsese’s new documentary won’t give you any answers, but what answers could you even expect a rock and roll tour to tell you anyhow? What you will see, even if you ignore the faked interviews, is compelling footage of a man ready to go all the way. Dylan, 40 years before he stood crooning Sinatra songs to sold shows of confused fans, showing what a performance artist he really is. He is mesmeric in his conviction. You know the myth, he’s up there, creating and casting off personas, making each one intimately real. Really, he’s stepping into a music tradition that goes back beyond radio and records, when music was communal and narrative songs were ways to preserve memories.
As the documentary progresses, the interviews tell you that the only thing you can really trust in this film is the music. Everything else, the myths, the rumours, the dream of a lost America, fades into insignificance beside that footage. It is footage of one of the all time greats at a career-high, shrugging off personal defeats to show he still had the swagger to dominate a room. What it will tell you is just how much power Dylan had at his best. He could marshal a tight electric band, or a loose assemblage of musicians (yes, that is Mick Ronson on lead guitar, and yes, it’s better than it ever should be) or captivate with just his voice and guitar. It will tell you just what a student of performance Dylan is.
The interviews, real and fake, pale in comparison to the only truth that matters, Dylan on stage in 1975 was a man at some sort of peak. We will never know the roads Dylan has had to travel to get to that peak, but it surely has come at a personal cost. He still tours constantly, still seeing the world from hotels in small towns and bus windows, places the world rarely looks its best from. The film doesn’t answer, can’t answer, why. He could have retired to his Malibu mansion or his Minnesota ranch any time. The film ends with the suggestion the Rolling Thunder Revue really is part of the Never Ending Tour. The lost highway Dylan is on still stretches out before him.
The myths disguise successfully who Dylan is when the cameras aren’t rolling, but they also obscure who he is when they are. The myths and so diverse and diffused it’s hard to realign the image on the screen with any plausible reality of who Dylan might be. Strip everything away, every story, even the ones you know are true. If all you were left with were the songs you know they’ll still be part of the canon in a century’s time. Not all of them, but enough to debate. Entire movements of music have produced fewer lasting artefacts than Bob Dylan has. He has built his legacy of songs from back in the ether, and they’ll continue to exist out there after he’s gone. Sure this film is funny, with its pretend memories and stories, but don’t let the myths distract from the real magic happening on stage.