By Christopher John Stephens
This article first appeared in Pop Matters and is reproduced by kind permission of the author.
Those of us who have followed the life and times of Bob Dylan understand that the only real through line he has ever had is his tenuous connection with the truth. From his first major performance in 1961 to today, Dylan has been everything and nothing to his fans. Blink and you’ll miss the cascade of personas: he’s singing at the 1963 March on Washington; three years later, after shedding the “unwashed phenomenon” folkie protest skin in favor of life as the ultimate rock star, he nearly loses his life in a motorcycle accident; Dylan as the country recluse follows for the next eight years; he re-emerges in 1974 as a loud stadium act with his old pals in The Band. Flash forward to 1978 (time has always been a subjective condition for Dylan, and Scorsese playfully twists it for his own purposes in Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story and read this line from Street Legal. The album’s final song, “Where Are You Tonight (Journey Through Dark Heat)” gave words to what most of us had always understood and appreciated about Dylan:
The truth was obscure, too profound and too pure
To live it you have to explode.
In that last hour of need, we entirely agreed
Sacrifice was the code of the road.
Dylan’s connection with truth may be matched in importance by his working relationship with artistic collaborators, but even there, the stories are legendary about his aloof nature with musical partners. What’s true? Why does that matter? Look outside music and watch D. A. Pennebaker’s documentary Don’t Look Back (1967), where the cruel mercurial genius is on the threshold of transforming from his folk persona during a tour in England. Watch Todd Haynes’ brilliant 2007 fictional biopic I’m Not There, featuring Cate Blanchett as one of several Dylan characters wandering through his life in an alternate history. He leaves pieces of himself behind in all of these projects, even in his own Masked and Anonymous (2003). Whatever is to be made of Dylan has never been his to make.
Scorsese is the perfect partner for Dylan’s story. The Last Waltz (1978) featured Dylan stealing the show at the end of an all-star evening farewell tribute to the original and best configuration of the Band. Shot Thanksgiving night 1976, with the man in the midst of domestic turmoil and ready to segue into another version of himself. Scorsese’s 2005 documentary No Direction Home: Bob Dylan covered the explosion of his popularity right before, during, and after the electric era with a perfect selection of footage and contemporary talking head interviews. The film is comprehensive, reflective, and knowing. Dylan wanted to talk. His people knew that Scorsese was an informed music man who understood why and how to use Dylan’s music. The result is equal parts definitive historical record and some beautifully restored color footage that sets the record straight as to whether or not this is a man really is a “Judas” for “betraying” the cause of folk music.
Rolling Thunder Revue is a flat-out masterpiece that delivers on levels difficult to fully grasp with just one viewing. Dylan and Scorsese are having a laugh at the audience from beginning to end, but at no point is it laughter of contempt. This is the story of the first leg of a tour Dylan undertook from 30 October to 8 December 1975. It focuses on the East Coast and places like Plymouth and Lowell Massachusetts (paying tribute to the Pilgrims of Plymouth Rock and Jack Kerouac, respectively), Canada (picking up old friends Gordon Lightfoot and Joni Mitchell along the way), Connecticut, and a finalé in New York City to benefit imprisoned boxer Ruben “Hurricane” Carter. It was a carnival filled with shamans (poet Allen Ginsberg), playwrights (Sam Shepard), a folk goddess icon (Joan Baez), a glam rock guitar god formerly with David Bowie (Mick Ronson), and the debut of the now ubiquitous T-Bone Burnett.
For years, the legend of The Rolling Thunder Revue tour had been the subject of interpretations and accounts that varied wildly in their degree of legitimacy and pretension. Rolling Stone writer Larry “Ratso” Sloman’s 1978 memoir On the Road with Bob Dylan(Three Rivers Press, 2002) is sycophantic, informative, and fun. Shepard’s 1977 account, The Rolling Thunder Logbook (Viking, 1977), reads like a precious literary artifact from the time. Both men were on the tour and given various tasks. Shepard was taken on to provide scenarios for the film Dylan was making while on the tour, Renaldo and Clara. He didn’t sign on for the second leg of the tour when he saw that his aspirations weren’t being incorporated into Dylan’s unwieldy ambitions, and while Shepard’s book is not as heavy as it thinks it is, it contains moments that speak to what Scorsese and Dylan seem intent on expressing with this film:
“A strong recurring feeling I get from watching Dylan perform is the sense of him playing for Big Stakes… the repercussions of his art don’t have to be answered by him at all… Myth is a powerful medium because it talks to the emotions and not the head.” (Shepard, 63.)
This is the point we need to understand from the beginning of this film. It’s a story, a myth, a fabrication. There’s a reason Scorsese begins with the great Georges Méliès The Vanishing Lady (1896). It’s all a mirage. Dylan also tips his hat early in this film when he says, “If someone’s wearing a mask, he’s gonna tell you the truth.” At no point in contemporary interviews is Dylan wearing a mask. He’s clear-headed, and we can see deep into his famous “blue” eyes. The “lies” compound early in the contemporary talking-head interviews as we meet Stefan Van Dorp, an indignant auteur who claims throughout the film that he directed the original footage that was never used. Van Dorp is a character played by performance artist Martin Von Haselberg, half of the ’70s art duo the Kipper Kids, and longtime husband of Bette Midler, who also shows up early in the film in beautifully clear color footage with Dylan at Patti Smith at New York’s The Bitter End.
Any manufactured joke needs to sustain itself from beginning to end, and Van Dorp is a good foil for the main players here. Dylan recalls that he ate more than he should have. Scorsese manufactures other footage, like interviews with a since-deceased Shepard, to make it appear as if the references are to Van Dorp. Other put-ons include Paramount President Jim Gianopulos claiming he was the tour promoter. If the name of Tennessee Congressman Jack Tanner sounds familiar, it’s only because Tanner was the fictional character played by Michael Murphy in Tanner ’88, a mockumentary series written by political cartoonist Garry Trudeau and directed by Robert Altman. Other extended jokes that work quite well in this context involve Sharon Stone claiming she was 19 when Dylan met her backstage during the tour and invited her to join the troupe. Later, she recalls that he played her the then nearly decade-old “Just Like a Woman” and said he’d just written it for her. “She seemed old for her age,” Dylan deadpans.
As expected, especially for those of us who have followed him this far, Dylan flawlessly plays along. Actor Ronee Blakley claims Ginsberg was a father figure, and Dylan says he was anything but that. He claims he got the idea of painting his face white after seeing a Kiss concert in 1973 (more likely it was inspired by Marcel Carné’s 1946 film, Children of Paradise, Les enfants du paradis) What was the Rolling Thunder tour about? “I don’t have a clue,” he says. At another point, he notes: “Life is about creating yourself.” Asked if it was a successful tour, he concludes: “No, it wasn’t… not if you measure success in terms of profit… What remains… nothing… not one single thing-ashes.” He’s grizzled but not bewildered. Of his violinist Scarlet Rivera, with her long raven black air and painted face, he says: “She didn’t say much. She didn’t have to.”
Dylan continues, late in life, to be deferential to ex-lover Joan Baez during on-camera interviews, claiming they could harmonize in their sleep. As detailed in Don’t Look Back, Baez was invited to join Dylan’s tour of England with the expectation of a leading role only to eventually be marginalized and dismissed by the inner circle. She eventually chose to leave the tour. She notes here that all is forgiven when she hears him sing. Some of the footage involving them is almost heartbreaking in its purity and simple aspirations toward lofty art. Scorsese rescues some scenes from Dylan’s Renaldo and Clara. In one, Dylan and Baez stand by at a bar while in their mid-30s, reflecting on what would have been over a decade earlier, a marriage that could have happened, love that could have sustained.
There’s a full performance of “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” that will convince most that Dylan’s voice was the only one that could save America from itself. “One More Cup of Coffee (To the Valley Below)” recalls an encounter with a Roma gypsy musical celebration/carnival (another tall tale? another inspiration for the Revue? Possibly.) In more scenes taken from Renaldo and Clara, Ginsberg recites the grim “Kaddish” before a crowd of elderly Jewish women, followed by Dylan performing a cha-cha nightclub danceable version of “Simple Twist of Fate”, followed by a heartbreaking, more familiar version. All concepts of time, sincerity, and legitimacy quickly dissolve into each other.
This is a film about collaborations, unity, the power of community (Ginsberg implores the viewer to find community.) It’s also a film about being sincerely moved to tears. Indeed, as one performance draws to a close, footage closes in on one woman breaking down as she realizes this night of magic — at least for her — has ended.
Those looking for Mitchell at her beret-wearing hipster beatnik best will be understandably thrilled by a scene where Mitchell, Roger McGuinn, and Dylan are visiting Gordon Lightfoot in Montreal. Lightfoot sits in the background and watches the others work through “Coyote”, Mitchell’s song of/for/about the tour. Dylan and the troupe appear at a Tuscarora Indian Convention Hall to perform “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” before a small afternoon crowd looking along, almost distracted, at lunch tables. Scorsese also manages to get Dylan to talk about “Hurricane”, as we see footage of the cause that fueled part of this tour (and another scene from Renaldo and Clara where Dylan rushes to the CBS offices to get them quickly release the song). Ruben “Hurricane” Carter notes that Dylan always claimed he was searching for the Holy Grail, and Dylan concurs.
It’s important to note that the Scorsese of 1975 was probably the cinematic equivalent of Dylan at that time. While Dylan was over a decade into his career, Scorsese was still relatively early into his professional directorial life. He was about to make Taxi Driver (1976), his first brutal masterpiece and an uncompromising look at the state of the country in during the “Me” decade. They were both looking to deconstruct icons, shatter myths, and rebuild things in their own image while still honoring their predecessors.
Where Taxi Driver marked an artist who would take a long time to reveal his sense of humor, Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese is a cheeky delight from beginning to end. Scorsese and Dylan are the perfect comic co-collaborators. Scorsese wraps it up with an end credit scroll that matches any Marvel superhero film. It starts slowly, with a scroll of tour dates after this first leg of the tour, and by 1988, the start of what all but Dylan calls “The Never-ending Tour”, the dates don’t stop. It’s enough to make any viewer/listener/true believer remember another highlight from “Tangled up in Blue”. This version (one of the most famous scenes from Renaldo and Clara not used by Scorsese) has for years been a manifestation of the lightning Scorsese has finally managed to capture in a beautiful bottle.
“But me, I’m still on the road/ Headin’ for another joint.”
It doesn’t get any better than this.
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