1975: A changed country and a different Bob Dylan. The Vietnam War raged on, while Watergate decimated the country’s innocence. Dylan, once the surly Messiah went into a creative downturn: releasing dodgy work like Self Portrait and Planet Waves. However, in 1975 — mired in mediocrity — the singer made one the greatest and most unlikely comebacks in music history, releasing Blood on the Tracks, The Basement Tapes, and Desire.
Now playing to arenas again, Dylan happened upon a rather simple but bold idea: He wanted to create a traveling revue show, bouncing from small town to small town and performing to smaller crowds. The manifested idea, the Rolling Thunder Revue, a financial failure, but a revolutionary success that played the final notes of the 60’s is captured in director Martin Scorsese’s Netflix documentary: Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story.
To open, Scorsese uses man-in-the-street archival footage of respondents reacting to America’s bicentennial. When the Rolling Thunder Revue came to fruition, a concept spawned to create a newsreel-like film of the tour. Scorsese’s decision to cut to these non-musical archival bits make an homage to said idea. They also created a barre of Dylan and the country searching for answers of where to go next.
Scorsese then follows Dylan and co. from the planning to the execution of the tour, featuring new and near-contemporary interviews with Joan Baez, Sam Shepard, Allen Ginsburg, Ronnie Hawkins, and the songwriter himself.
The tour would later feature Patti Smith, Joni Mitchell, Baez, Ginsberg, a teenage Sharon Stone (who shares a couple of endearing stories), and a “different” Dylan. In fact, there are two Dylans: In the archival footage, the songwriter appears exuberant and playful, though still surly. However, in the present-day interviews he sits guarded, rarely making eye contact with the camera. Instead, he mostly offers pithy descriptions of the “friends” who accompanied him on the tour.
Scorsese goes some lengths to explain the hardships of stardom, the inability to trust and the presence of hanger-ons. He unconsciously provides an explanation for the differentiation of the two Dylans: A man tugged at from so many directions, shutting down presented the easiest path.
The revue, in its simplest form, demonstrates a rebellious cry. Music, after the 60’s, like the country, appeared to have lost its way. Gone was much of the protest music that dominated the previous 10 years. Instead, guitar solos became bigger, expense reports of passion projects from musicians grew in length, and the country dealt with the excesses of power and war, with regards to Nixon and Vietnam, in ways previously unimaginable. The innocence and purity at the center of the revue becomes a kind of bubble by which the 60’s still exists.
The performances during Scorsese’s documentary, restored 16mm film, are amazing and demonstrate the same fullness in mix as another one of his musical adventures: The Last Waltz. The performance of ‘Isis,’ in particular, displays the layered and rougher textural music Dylan searched for during the revue. The song is also emblematic of Dylan as a peak stage artist, with the folk crooner covered in face-paint (Kabuki style), adorned with a vest and flower covered fedora, dramatically acting out his spellbinding lyrics with nuanced vocal intonations in coordination with the magnetic jolts of his eyes. The tour would also include poetic readings from Ginsberg and duets between Baez and Dylan, in a tour de force of spontaneity and artistic endeavors over commercial exploits made with the accompaniment of his nimble and brilliant band.
Nevertheless, the Dylan we see isn’t perfect (then and now). There are a couple of cringey quotes on women, specifically referring to them as “pure girls.” Also, Dylan during the revue wasn’t all fun and games. The singer, throughout his career, made sure to treat the media with animosity. Never wholly comfortable with title: the ‘Voice of a Generation,’ much of his antics served as a rebellion against journalists who added greater significance to his every moment and word than he to himself. We see glimpses of such during Scorsese’s doc: Everyone believes they were closest to the “real” Dylan, and each map their perceptions of him unto him as the tour somewhat succumbs to infighting and descends into chaos.
No one receives more of the folkster’s ire than filmmaker Martin von Haselberg, the man behind the lens of some of the footage The worse tendencies of Dylan often arise in their interactions, and one gets the sense of a deeper fissure than what’s on screen. One possibility might arise from von Haselberg asking questions of the singer that hit at his clouded heart. In fact, Rubin Carter makes note of Dylan as a man always searching for something, yet still never finding the answer. In some ways, the folkster’s search mirrors the malaise of the country: A nation from the 60’s trying to figure out where those pure ideal left to during the 70’s.
Yet, as Joan Beaz surmises, the prescient voice, talent, and charisma of the lyrical savant supersedes his obvious warts, such as writing and performing ‘Hurricane’ to free the wrongfully imprisoned Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter or even the very idea of sacrificing profits to keep this revue of talents and misfits together in the name of artistic freedom. “Life isn’t about finding yourself. It’s about creating yourself,” Dylan surmises, and so much of who others proclaim him to be shifts and changes with the wind, continually creating and re-creating.
There’s also something that still attracts us to Dylan. In an era where artists are forced to consciously reacts to their fans on a personal level, gone are the days of the enigmatic surly rock stars like Prince, Tom Petty, or the Sex Pistols. The veneer of mystery, in the internet age, is dead. The separation between the public and private personas now meld into one. Dylan still holds onto the notion of mythology rather than man, and any moment audiences have to learn even an extra micro-crumb of detail represents gulps of water in a desert.
Scorsese’s Rolling Thunder Revue serves as a study of the last vestiges of the 60’s riding off into the sunset during the mid-70’s. A final adieu by the era’s biggest musical and poetic titans, who came together for a revolutionary and creatively freeing experience. And ultimately, the film demonstrates the various ways Dylan has known the pulse of the country before we knew ourselves, and in this regard is a complete triumph of the newsreel: An enlivening and riveting time capsule.