Rolling Thunder Revue: Martin Scorsese's Bob Dylan anti-documentary chronicles famous 1970s concert tour

Anurag Tagat

Jun 30, 2019 13:10:50 IST

Bob Dylan, one of the greatest singer-songwriters of all time, drops a timeless gem of a quote in Martin Scorsese's Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan StoryIn the new documentary, a hair-raising dialogue sees Dylan saying, "Life is about creating yourself." This is coming from the man who didn't go on a proper tour between his motorcycle accident in 1966 until 1974, when the circus-like 'Rolling Thunder Revue' tour was about to kick off the next year.

Rolling Thunder Revue: Martin Scorseses Bob Dylan anti-documentary chronicles famous 1970s concert tour

Joan Baez and Bob Dylan in Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese." Netflix

But that’s one of the first takeaways for many from a well-edited trailer. Within the first five minutes of the full documentary, however, there’s an almost meme-worthy moment, in which Dylan says, “I don’t remember a thing about Rolling Thunder.” It might elicit a laugh from old and new fans of the celebrated troubadour, but it’s also a moment we should have really looked into.

Around the 12-minute mark, a filmmaker named Stefan van Dorp shows up in a superpretentious interview, and journalists later realised this was an entirely fictional character played by actor, investor and Bette Midler’s husband Martin von Haselberg. If you keep your guard up from there on, you begin to think about what the hell actor Sharon Stone is doing in Rolling Thunder, much less claiming that she tagged along for the tour in the mid-70s. Even Paramount Pictures CEO Jim Gianopulos appears in what is clearly a caricature of a Richie Rich tour promoter (who apparently walked around with bags of money). Then there’s a meta-level, bizarre inclusion of Jack Tanner, who is actually a character played by actor Michael Murphy in the 1988 mockumentary Tanner ‘88. Tanner explains former president Jimmy Carter’s connection to Dylan, doctored archival photos and all.

All these aspects of Rolling Thunder Revue almost make it an anti-documentary of sorts, as Scorsese blends the real with the fake, leaving viewers to be as discerning as possible (or not). It’s perhaps that in the post-truth age of social media and ‘alternative facts’, Scorsese and Dylan’s team wanted to revisit a time that was highly irreverent, especially considering the carnival-esque atmosphere that the tour was all about.

Along the way, you can probably be happy about clips of Dylan classics like “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”, “Mr. Tambourine Man”, “One More Cup of Coffee” and “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” plus never-before-seen interviews with the likes of Allen Ginsberg (shot at the time). Dylan is his smooth, give-a-damn charming self but then there’s always the quirkiness that clearly hangs in the air thanks to singer-poets like Patti Smith with her stories of archers and diamonds.

Another still from the Rolling Thunder Revue tour. Netflix

Another still from the Rolling Thunder Revue tour. Netflix

Joan Baez and Dylan sing a heartfelt duet on “I Shall Be Released” later on, just after craftily dodging any rumours of being linked to her long-time friend (whom she had just reunited with on this tour). She remains an important part throughout Rolling Thunder Revue, looking back in more recent interviews fondly on her time on the road, which took them from small clubs to Native American reservations to correctional facilities, sparking one of many politically tinged moments.

As much as one may call this an antithesis of a documentary as well as a concert film, it has a lot of real concert footage of Dylan songs as well as insight into the songwriter and his troupe’s eccentricities. In the 1970s, no one cared about much and yet, they cared about a lot when they stepped in front of a mic, to talk about Native American war heroes like Ira Hayes or systemic racial discrimination.

Scorsese has shined light on Dylan a few times before, notably with No Direction Home, but Rolling Thunder Revue is quite a different beast. It features archival interviews that Scorsese plays with but also occasionally presents as-is, right next to performances which are euphoric blues but also sombre folk. For the documentary, Dylan was interviewed about two years ago, with other interviews starting out as early as a decade ago. At two hours and 22 minutes, Rolling Thunder Revue is long but also an entertaining watch for anyone who loved the electric era of Dylan, his idea behind an intimate yet crazy-as-the-70s tour and, of course, never before seen or heard interviews.

Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story is currently streaming on Netflix.

Updated Date: Jun 30, 2019 13:16:31 IST