Leave it to Martin Scorsese to make a documentary about Bob Dylan in the mid-1970’s that incorporates everything from George Méliès (early silent films) to “Les Enfants du Paradis” to the social upheaval that was a part of that tumultuous decade.
While Dylan is the focal point of the film, “Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese” features a dazzling array of performers including Patti Smith (at an open mic poetry night), Allen Ginsberg, Mick Ronson (David Bowie’s lead guitarist), Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Sam Shepard, Ronee Blakley, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter, Roger McGuinn, Scarlet Rivera and Sharon Stone (part of the entourage years before she became a famous actress), among many others.
Aside from his college films, Scorsese broke into filmmaking on rock documentaries like “Woodstock,” where he’s credited as a second unit director and editor.
At the same time Bob Dylan was already a legend.
Just as Dylan would adapt to new personas over the decades, like his religious conversion period or his eternal return to touring, so would Scorsese evolve as a director from B-movies like “Boxcar Bertha” to tony films like “The Age of Innocence.”
Just as Dylan has popular songs like “Lay Lady Lay,” he has many songs that are only known by his true fans. The same holds true for Scorsese, a director known for “Goodfellas” and “The Wolf of Wall Street” but also the helmer of such obscure films, perhaps due to their religious intensity, as “Kundun” or “Silence.”
Currently Scorsese is one of the most prolific filmmakers of our time, constantly turning out narrative and documentary films year after year while similarly Dylan continues to make albums and tour.
Perhaps each of these artists reached the zenith of their accomplishments in previous decades – it really depends on whom you ask. Is Scorsese’s 1976 “Taxi Driver” greater than his award winning “The Departed”? Or, is Dylan’s 1966 double LP Blonde on Blonde greater than any of his recent releases, which would include the 2016 Fallen Angels or the 2017 Triplicate?
It’s not surprising that “Rolling Thunder Revue …” taps into something greater than the sum of its parts. Scorsese has taken footage that was shot during the tour that took place from 1975 through 1976. The director of that footage Martin von Haselberg commanded a team of expert cameramen that included David Myers, Howard Alk, Paul Goldsmith and Michael Levine with an impromptu script provided by Shepard. (von Haselberg is currently married to Bette Midler.)
Scorsese has assembled the footage, which has been boosted to high resolution, while also adding current interviews with the main participants that involves von Haselberg, Stone, various musicians involved in the tour and most importantly Dylan, who speaks frankly about events in a manner that makes him seem both an innocent and yet complicit in the general mayhem that the tour begat.
The film diverts into the use of masks, which Dylan and other band members sported at various gigs. Thus, the connection to Méliès whose silent films were full of multiple faces. Some of the coolest moments depict Dylan driving the tour bus.
As one of the promoters states in a contemporary interview, the tour lost money because the size of the concert halls weren’t able to bring in enough money to cover the cost of the ever expanding entourage. Dylan had not toured since the mid-1960’s and the Rolling Thunder tour was his second outing on the road following a stadium tour with The Band the previous year.
Dylan claims that the moniker “Rolling Thunder” came out of an inspirational moment during a storm. The film points to such arcane facts like the phrase “rolling thunder” being President’s Nixon’s code word for the secret bombing of Cambodia. The planes used on those raids were flown out of Guam, which was also the name of the tour’s opening band.
There are snippets of songs throughout but when Scorsese goes long form and shows songs in their entirety the film takes off in a manner that grips the audience. Such moments include the social consciousness brilliance of songs like “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” and “Hurricane.”
It was during this tour that Dylan’s activism reemerged and resulted in the release from prison of Rubin Carter who was wrongly accused of murder.
At one point Dylan pays an unannounced visit to the offices of Columbia Records to discuss the release of the single for “Hurricane.” The way the president of that company kisses ass speaks volumes of how influential Dylan was during this era.
There are many moments of the film that the viewer will take away with them like a special gift, like a moment of clarity: Baez doing a funky dance while the band jams on McGuinn’s “8 Miles High;” Dylan and Ginsberg visiting Jack Kerouac’s grave; random comments from members of the tour such as Ronson lamenting that he’s never really spoken to Dylan the entire time; or Dylan playing “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” during a show at an Indian reservation.
“Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese” will play theatrically on June 11 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (7 pm.) and will premiere on Netflix the following day.
— Michael Bergeron