Fun fact: When Renaldo and Clara, Bob Dylan’s sole (and notoriously unsuccessful) foray into narrative filmmaking—a nearly four-hours-long fever dream combining vignettes with concert footage–opened in San Francisco in 1978, it was at the Castro Theatre. It is only fitting then that Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese that employs that same footage should have its one and only San Francisco screening before settling into its home on Netflix at the Castro. Complete with tastings of Dylan’s Heaven’s Door whiskey line, which is somehow perfect. The film, up to a point, anyway, is delicious. And so is the booze.
So, what happens when aging tricksters Scorsese and Dylan get together and make a movie? The short answer is an alternative history of a storied concert tour. Fact and fiction intermingle, leaving the viewer to parse the two and ponder just what constitutes truth, anyway. Billed as a doc, Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story both is and isn’t that. Scorsese opens the film with early silent film footage of a magic act. Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story is the rabbit the director pulls out of his hat.
In reality, the Rolling Thunder Revue tour that rolled through New England and other points east in the fall of 1975 was seen by relativity few people, but it would live large in legend even if sound recordists and a camera crew hadn’t been on the scene to capture it. The backing band was one of Dylan’s best, an exceptional lineup that included former Spiders from Mars guitarist Mick Ronson, a then unknown T-Bone Burnett, and violinist Scarlet Rivera. A lineup of guest artists and co-headliners joining him on stage and/or performing their own sets were Joan Baez, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Roger McGuinn, Joni Mitchell, Bob Neuwirth, and poet Allen Ginsburg.
The band was amazing, while its frontman was engaged, passionate, and clearly having a blast. The charisma Baez talks about in one of the new interviews in the documentary is on full display. Normally taciturn, Dylan is often downright ebullient, clearly enjoying his role as ringmaster. The joy is expressed in the music, a blend of Dylan’s back catalog, deep even then, and the new music he’d just recorded for his upcoming album Desire. Barn-burning versions of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” “Isis, ”Romance in Durango,” and “One More Cup of Coffee” are among the highlights, while a section of the film is devoted to “Hurricane,” the song he wrote to bring attention to the flight of imprisoned boxer Ruben “Hurricane” Carter.
That concert material makes up a lot of Scorsese’s film and it is superlative, the music as vital today as it was nearly 45 years ago. To that the director mixes in footage from Renaldo and Clara, the tour’s side project where all the performers took a role, archival footage from adjacent history (particularly Nixon’s resignation the year before and the 1976 American bicentennial), playful silent era footage toying with the idea of masks, and new interviews, some real, some not. Dylan’s own seem to straddle a middle. At one point, he paraphrases Oscar Wilde’s epigram, “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” He isn’t wearing a mask.
It is all wildly entertaining, but at the same time distancing. Talking heads like The Filmmaker (Kipper Kid Martin von Haselberg, perfect as a supercilious European auteur wannabe) and The Politician (Michael Murphy reprising his Jack Tanner role from his collaborations with Robert Altman) get far more screen time than any musician who isn’t Dylan or Baez. And most of the Rolling Thunder musicians aren’t represented at all. That is where the limits of Scorsese’s approach is felt most acutely. Where is T-Bone Burnett or Rob Stoner or Bob Neuwirth (Dylan’s longtime friend and the man Rolling Thunder guitarist J. Steven Soles credited in a recent Variety guest column with inspiring the Rolling Thunder Tour)? And what else did multi-instrumentalist David Mansfield, the baby on the tour at only 19, have to say besides recalling Ginsberg’s crush on him and his surprise at discovering Rambin’ Jack Elliott’s middle-class Brooklyn roots?
Within its constraints, Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story is wildly entertaining. The few people who got to see that tour witnessed something that really was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, something Dylan has never recreated in all of his subsequent years of touring. For the rest of Dylan’s fans, the film is a gift–and a great advertisement for its star. After all, the 14-disc CD The Rolling Thunder Revue: The 1975 Live Recordings just hit the streets on Friday. –Pam Grady