Rolling Thunder Revue (2019)

Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese is Scorsese’s immersive documentary of Dylan’s chaotic, 57-date musical caravan that toured the US and Canada in 1975.

Flashes of Lightning

by Phil Wilson

Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

There have been plenty of memorable Bob Dylan tours, some for the wrong reason, but until this new film one of the least well-known and more important was his 1975/6 Rolling Thunder Revue. It had a band of amazing musical talents and began with a low-key swing through New England and the NE states up to Canada. In a later filmed interview Dylan obfuscates about both the name and the nature of the tour. Something of an unwealdy, bloated carnival that picked up people as it went and was decidedly uncommercial. There’s little doubt that the tour was a personal reaction to his 1974 reunion tour with the Band played out in large stadiums and Rolling Thunder recharged his creative batteries and helped re-establish his credibility.

The film starts unpromisingly with amateur footage of the American Bicentennial before stumbling on to an in-crowd New York scene of parties, small clubs – Patti Smith performing early poetry – and rehearsals. But once Dylan jumps in the bus for Boston the film is off and running. Unlike Renaldo and Clara, which also used footage from the tour but was overshadowed by memorably bad acting, Scorsese has created a fast-flowing narrative which draws on the characters in the entourage to create its own dynamic. This is not a straightforward warts-and-all documentary and not all is to be taken as shown because Scorsese both obscures and embellishes the truth to create a more memorable film.

Nonetheless there are a few elements of fiction and the role play portrayed in Renaldo and Clara is still listed in the final credits, though not obvious in the film. Scarlet Rivera has a very dramatic impact, while Mick Ronson drifts across the stage like something out of Spinal Tap, plus a hapless journalist and a vain cameraman who in retrospect claims the rest were crazy and ruined his project. Not all of the musicians are really showcased well in the film; perhaps the result of the negative having been lost and Scorsese having to rely on a grainy ‘work print’. Some fell by the wayside as the tour progressed. Allen Ginsberg, originally a key person shown with Dylan at Kerouac’s graveside and once again performing poetry to old ladies’ clubs, had been reduced to being a baggage handler by the end as the burgeoning three-hour set list couldn’t accommodate him.

The footage and narrative are often dense and occasionally confusing, as the camera switches constantly between live footage and interviews. Many of the songs come from the Blood On The Tracks and Desire albums, with the odd surprise thrown in. But rarely are the songs shown in their entirety and many drift in and out throughout, like ‘One More Cup of Coffee’. Those that stand out are an impassioned version of ‘Hurricane’, Dylan’s solo version of ‘A Simple Twist Of Fate’, an electric version of ‘The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll’ and Joni Mitchell working up ‘Coyote’ with Roger McGuinn and Dylan in Gordon Lightfoot’s house. Dylan’s unexpected solo performance of ‘Ballad of Ira Hayes’ before a Native American audience is a blinder. To these you might add a long snatch of ‘Isis’, and ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’. They’re all in there somewhere.

The best explanation of the tour comes early in the film, suggesting that Dylan liked the sense of chaos; but it’s left to Allen Ginsberg in a final press conference to provide the most lucid account of what we’ve just witnessed. Dylan remains typically enigmatic throughout, but the film is always fascinating on many levels. Bob Dylan fans may require several viewings to soak it all in.

Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese previewed at BFI Southbank and is released on 12 June 2019 on Netflix.

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