Originally available on Netflix in 2019, Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese is now available on both DVD and Blu-Ray through The Criterion Collection. Most prominent among the usual assortment of bonus features in this ‘Director’s Cut’—digital restoration, trailer, 5.1 Surround Sound– is additional performance footage from the mythic 1975 tour, the striking sights and sound alone compel viewing the entire film, the balance of which is hardly the usual narrative documentary.
In their self-professed aversion to a conventional approach for this project, the famed movie-maker and his long-time collaborator David Tedeschi undermine the impact of their work. It’s certainly a distinct contrast to the linear approach they took on another effort based on the Nobel Laureate, No Direction Home, as well as the trenchant biopic on late Beatle George Harrison, Living in the Material World. What may be most frustrating here though, is the reality their approach avoids any clear-cut depiction of this notable phase from Dylan’s half-century plus career.
In spite of themselves, however, Scorcese and Tedeschi do proffer some insight, not only into the uber-hectic dynamics of this unconventional mobile folk hootenanny but also into how fully and completely Minnesota native Robert Zimmerman created this character we know as ‘Bob Dylan.’ On the latter front, Joan Baez’ story of masquerading as the man himself is even more riotously funny than a young Sharon Stone’s tale of flirtation. Essayist Dana Spiotta touches on the point of illusion versus reality too, even as he also makes a good case for a more pointed sociopolitical reading.
Yet the superimposition of an interpretation involving the culture of America around the 1976 anniversary celebration seems forced. The novelist almost, but not quite, falls prey to the filmmakers’ (and most Dylanologists’) penchant for simply reading too much into what their eyes and ears behold. In one of the many interview segments peppering two hours-plus running time, Dylan himself offers the most pertinent thoughts about the initial conception of the Rolling Thunder Revue, i.e., a reaction to dissatisfaction with his 1974 reunion tour with The Band.
But, in their own conversations, both Scorsese and Tedeschi (brother of musician Susan, co-leader of the Tedeschi-Trucks Band) fail to even mention, much less illuminate, a point so salient it might well have been the gateway for a markedly superior construction of this title. Journalist Larry “Ratso” Sloman is far more clear-headed in his conversation and, perhaps unwittingly (due to his own innate verbosity), he reveals how Rolling Thunder allowed Dylan to rediscover the joy of performing.
Bob’s intense passion for the stage is as readily discernible in solo renditions like “Tangled Up In Blue” as the celebratory full band takes such as “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” and “When I Paint My Masterpiece.” On the latter, in fact, he radiates the expectant air of one about to hit that latter peak experience, while on the former, his abiding engagement with the song and the music is sufficiently infectious, it appears almost the entirety of the ensemble—except for the stoically enigmatic beauty that is violinist Scarlet Rivera– displays the same animated body language and smiling visage of the frontman.
The performance footage of Rolling Thunder Revue thus reaffirms that, along with the 1966 tour with the Hawks (nee The Band) and the middle period of his gospel years around 1980, the Rolling Thunder Revue thus stands as one of the three pinnacles of Bob Dylan’s stage history. As such, the concert intervals included here compel a wish that, as with the Bob Dylan – The Rolling Thunder Revue: The 1975 Live Recordings (Legacy, 2019), these physical releases were expanded to double-disc sets in order to allow at least one complete concert to be included.
Still, as epitomized by dramatic renditions such as that of “Isis” that Scorsese and Tedeschi rightly found so riveting, that content is absolutely compelling. As a result, Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story By Martin Scorsese is another invaluable, if not exactly essential entry, into the canon of this cultural icon.