Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese (Netflix)

June 25, 2019

What an absolute treat! Netflix commissioned Martin Scorsese to direct a movie/documentary of Bob Dylan’s 1975 Rolling Thunder RevueFilm footage and sound recordings were available and Scorsese gathered it all up, added talking heads and released a movie of this odyssey. It is fabulous.

It’s exceptional due to the quality of the music. It catches Dylan just after recording Desire and not long after Blood On The Tracks. Here we hear tracks from both albums along with Dylan dipping into his seminal catalogue from the beginning of his recording career. The passion and voice are magnificent to behold. This was Dylan at his most majestic.

The whole 2 hours and 22 minutes are engrossing. It starts with Dylan collecting and rehearsing a band (mostly the musicians from the Desire sessions); listening to his entourage discuss the concept of this tour of a 4 hour show which included other performers including poet, Alan Ginsberg and watching the mercurial coming and goings of the man.

However, I must break here and add that Scorsese has added fiction. This adds rather than distracts from the proposition. The 78 year old Dylan tries to fill in some of the gaps on events or fellow musicians – he does quip “it happened so long ago I wasn’t even born”. Characters such as Sharon Stone are added to the plot by way of an interview. Here she tells us that she met Bob as a teenager whilst he was on this tour and was invited to join the entourage. Apparently her Kiss sweat shirt and good looks were the attraction. This is hokum.

As is the creation of a Svengali like figure, Stefan Van Dorp, who films the music and back stage action with the intent of eventually releasing his own movie. He never existed, except as Bette Midler’s husband (!) yet his commentary does amplify the tensions and camaraderieof players we see before us. These ‘players’ are musicians, managers, poets, hand bill distributors or record company employees. Continually emphasised are Dylan’s mystic qualities. Those around him seem to offer up little less than awe; they are following the pied piper. It seems the direction and composition of the whole performance each night is fluid and bordering on unstructured. None of this seems to matter as Bob steers his camper van to the next town.

These children of the 60s are performing during interesting times. Scorsese inserts clips of significant events such as Nixon’s resignation and Ford’s installation. The future President Carter is shown in the company of Dylan as well quoting his lyrics. The film also has clips from the immediate the period before the Bicentennial: a time of celebration yet also taking stock of some of the inequalities of 20th Century America. One such is the racially charged incarceration of the boxer, Rubin ‘The Hurricane’ Carter, for the murder that he didn’t commit.

His plight became the main track, “Hurricane”, off 1975’s Desire and here Dylan’s delivery (in his white face paint and hat) is spellbinding as he narrates the story of his abuse. Similarly “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Caroll” from his 1964 The Times They Are A-Changin’ tells a story of the then landed gentry getting away nearly free after the killing of a black maid and mother.This is delivered with vigour, contempt and resignation. Dylan with energy, voice and focus is a sight to behold as he brings my record collection to life. I could list the songs he played but be assured it is all weapon grade.

Guests abound and duets with Joan Baez are notable for their chemistry and intimacy. Roger McGuinn is happy and honoured to be included and abandons other engagements. Joni Mitchell also changes her all plans and signs up to join the tour. According to McGuinn in his Rolling Stone podcast interview she’d decided to only play new songs and the crowd reaction was muted. She wouldn’t relent. Listening to her practise “Coyote” with Dylan and McGuinn (also on acoustic guitars) is a highlight (although, for me, never as electric as her Scorsese captured appearance at The Band’s 1976 Last Waltz concert).

The violinist Scarlet Rivera is at best a Gothic figure of enormous talent, darkness and poise. Her violin infuses all here with such colour and sentiment that is truly memorable and vital. Surprising to see in the line up is the Yorkshireman Mick Ronson. He plays electric lead guitar in the background. Remarkably two years earlier he was embedded in David Bowie’s Spiders From Mars band clad from head to toe in glitter and make up. His then piercing rock guitar licks bear no relationship to this tasteful and complementary accompaniment.

The footage floats around to various locations including hand bills being distributed about the gigs prior to the revue rolling into towns. Unsurprisingly $8.50 per ticket was no problem. However due to the size of the entourage and the small size of the venues the tour makes a loss despite CBS having their arms twisted to find $100,000 as working capital.

If you’re a Dylanologist then you’ve seen this. If your knowledge of Dylan is that of a much revered  elderly icon shuffling around with the voice like a crosscut saw then you must see this is. This vibrant, mysterious, supra creative and unique genius is fully on display in his pomp. I’m nearly tempted to buy the 14 disc boxset: Bob Dylan – The Rolling Thunder Revue: The 1975 Live Recordings.

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