Harlan Jacobson Reviews The Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story

Jun 14, 2019

Joan Baez and Bob Dylan perform 'I Shall Be Released' during the 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue tour.

Rolling Thunder Revue’s subtitle is A Bob Dylan Story, told by Scorsese with a little help from his friends at Netflix, which helped Scorsese and collaborators find restore to vibrancy footage of Dylan’s 1975 tour of small venues in mostly small towns across America beginning at Plymouth Rock. They’ve added new testimonials, a number of which are pure fictional flights of fancy. 

“I don’t remember anything about Rolling Thunder. It happened so long ago, I wasn’t even born,” Dylan says as a throwaway in  a contemporary interview that punctuates the archival footage. Dylan adds one true thing right up top: “Life isn’t about finding yourself. Or finding anything. Life is about creating yourself.” 

It was Scorsese’s mission to recall Rolling Thunder – more to capture the essence of what happened than to document the facts, which exist mostly in broad outlines. 

This much we know: In the role of troubadour and traveling sage, Dylan drives the Winnebago all across America—no one was going to take the wheel from him—and chocks it full of legends: Patti Smith, Ronnie Hawkins, Ramblin' Jack Elliott,  Roger McGuinn, Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky as something between poets in residence and baggage handlers. Sam Shepard then writing the script for Dylan’s four-hour film, Renaldo & Clara (largely regarded as a disaster, I might add), and here in an interview before his death two years ago explains the tour’s mission as analogous to the troubadours who passed through Stratford-on-Avon en route to London who inspired the young Will Shakespeare to bear witness to his age. Then there’s Sharon Stone, Ronee Blakely, Ruben Hurricane Carter and Joni Mitchell who gets on the bus and decides to stay, trying out “Coyote,” — she only does  new material to her career detriment, she laments— in a room somewhere with Dylan and McGuinn as side men on guitar, that shows why her particular nervous, angry child-genius belonged there. 

And, of course, there’s Joan Baez, who may be the only adult on board then, or now, who goes all the way back with Dylan to the earliest 60s, and who recalls being on Rolling Thunder and putting on Dylan’s hat and a fake moustache and suddenly becoming the beneficiary of extraordinary deference by just about everyone who thought she must be Dylan — crew, roadies, talent, you name it -- and frames it in the unfairness of gender bias and life in general. Dylan had charisma like no one else, Baez recalls. The film leaves out the cringeworthy parts of her 1987 memoir, And A Voice to Sing With, like Dylan coming over for dinner and picking the meat out of the stewpot with his long fingernails and then leaving. Baez alone has the authority to add, “But when he sings, everything is forgiven.” Their duet here of “I Shall Be Released” beats The Band’s Richard Manuel’s original 1968 version and is generationally haunting and beautiful.  

You can have a good time letting Rolling Thunder roll over you and do nothing more. The film’s revelation of Scarlet Rivera, that strange, fevered snake-charming violinist Dylan found on a street in Manhattan who haunts so much of Dylan’s work--think “Hurricane” or “One More Cup of Coffee for the Road” -- is revelation enough. 

You have to be a little careful with Rolling Thunder: Scorsese has punctuated his extraordinary career as film’s Dostoevsky – from Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull all the way to The Age of Innocence and The Wolf of Wall Street --  with music docs like The Last Waltz, George Harrison and No Direction Home,  a PBS doc about the young Dylan.  Rolling Thunder adds into the mix of archival footage some witness testimony by recognizable people — Sharon Stone, for instance—who weren’t there but are playing fictional characters like The Beauty Queen, a high school groupie, who probably was. If I go any further about Scorsese’s creative innovation -- real people playing fictional roles in a documentary – we’ll all fall through Alice’s funhouse mirror and remain lost forever. In this terrible media age, it makes some critics nervous that it’s a blend of fact and fiction to arrive at “faction,” a truth that relies on invention. It’s that kind of work.  Creatively, it’s a beautiful cull of footage from when we thought we’d stay forever young.

The Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story, premiered at Lincoln Center and goes out in theaters this weekend and on Netflix.
Credit Harlan Jacobson / WBGO

  You haven’t lived till you see Ginsberg read “Kaddish” in an old age home full of bubbies and get to the vagina line, or Dylan sing to the ladies playing mahjongg wondering what happened to Al Jolson. But the bedrock of it is the archival footage shot mostly in closeup of Dylan in whiteface with mascara lined eyes, scarf and fedora with flowers and a large peacock plume floating off the brim, like something out of Aubrey Beardsley a century earlier, and which has been abstracted as the film’s poster. Scorsese laces throughout the film these concert closeups of Dylan, the bard of late 20th Century America, earning his Nobel Prize by singing what was then assumed to be truth to power with utter clarity. The result is a kind of emotional truth about something larger than the tour, but about post WWII America that was truer than the official story would acknowledge.

Taken together -- Rocketman, David Crosby Remember My Name and Rolling Thunder -- are more than about music men, and I say that because women are mostly sidemen in them. They are about Boomers, who are now, in Dylan’s much earlier phrasing, busy dying. 

Boomers are an insecure generation about who they are and what they’ve done, as if they’re still teenagers asking where do we go from here? They are the children, after all, of what Tom Brokaw called the Greatest Generation. Boomers experienced the full weight and power of     D-Day, the 75th anniversary of which we just celebrated, in the conflicted way of fathers and sons, which is different than Xers, Millennials, and later generations do. When D-Day is the totem of what your Dad did -- whether he wanted to or not, even whether he was there or not -- and Woodstock and the mudslide is yours, there’s something going on there, Mr. Jones, and even if you don’t know what it is,  it becomes the rock you push uphill forever. 

The Greatest Generation, quite naturally, told us after the war that everything was now perfect—plastics was perfect—how could it not be, they had sacrificed their youth for it, their innocence and their right to swing time for it and fought heroically and died for it. How could the peace not be perfect? 

 Only it wasn’t. There were still matters of conquest and corporations, race, class and privilege, gender and sex, love. wealth and color, and beauty and honor that were not perfect, are not perfect still. We’re still fighting over the narrative about what is and isn’t true in our public life today. 

What Boomers did -- and only this -- is told the truth about the world that came after D-Day. Dylan says it early in Rolling Thunder Revue: “When someone’s wearing a mask, he’s gonna tell ya the truth,” old Dylan says here about the Rolling Thunder Dylan in whiteface. “When’ he’s not, it’s highly unlikely.”  Old Bob wears no mask, and his face looks like Mt. Washington.  

Boomers are fixing to leave the planet, and singly or together these three films take note of that.  Rocketman is cursed by a schizophrenic telling of a standard musical biography in which creativity buries the father. David Crosby Remember My Name weighs the cost of the anti-herd sensibility.  And closest to my heart, Rolling Thunder Revue sees our light come shining, from the west down to the east. Any day now, any day now, I shall be released.