Scorsese gets playful with Dylan
In the summer of 1975, in the middle
of recording his album 'Desire', Bob Dylan decided that he wanted to go on tour
again, but that he also wanted a break. A break from the crowds, from the press
scrutiny, maybe even from his own stardom. So in the fall of that year, he
launched the Rolling Thunder Revue, a knowingly small-time ramble of a concert
tour that was designed, from the outset, to be a kind of antiquated floating
carnival of down-home traveling players. Call it 'A Prairie Home Companion' meets
Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.
The venues wouldn't be sold-out arenas, like the ones that
Dylan had played, along with the Band, to rapturous audiences the year before.
They would be concert halls (typical crowd: 3,000) in places like Plymouth, Mass,
and Rochester, NY, and Bangor, Maine. And though the tour was billed on posters
as an all-star counterculture revue, the friends and collaborators Dylan
brought along with him didn't exactly light up the marquee. There was his
former romantic partner Joan Baez (still a sublime singer, though her cultural
moment had past), the country-fried cult musician Ramblin' Jack Elliott (who
was actually the son of a dentist in Brooklyn), the former Byrd Roger McGuinn,
plus Allen Ginsberg, Sam Shepard, Ronee Blakley, and other rising bohemian
luminaries. The one thing Dylan did that the entire rock culture, from Led
Zeppelin to ABBA, seemed to be embracing at the time was that he arranged for
the Rolling Thunder Revue to be filmed.
It was, yet the film never got made. The only movie that ever
emerged from the tour was 'Renaldo and Clara', a four-hour epic of fragmentary
staged whimsy (Dylan is credited with directing it, but a more accurate credit
would read 'Not really directed at all') that is, except for its tantalizing
concert scenes, unwatchable. The Rolling Thunder Revue remains a legendary
novelty tour, but it turned out to be the rock docu that never was.
Until now. Martin Scorsese has taken the mountain of footage
that was shot, by four cinematographers, during the tour, along with
present-day interviews with many of the participants, including Dylan at his
most gnarly sincere, and assembled it into a digitally restored, impeccably
edited, audaciously alive 2-hour-and-22-minute Scorsese feast of a 1970s verite
sprawl. It's called 'Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin
Scorsese', and it drops on Netflix on June 12.
The first thing to say about the movie is that it contains
some of the most exciting footage of Dylan in concert that's ever been seen. On
the Rolling Thunder Revue tour, Dylan appeared on stage wearing heavy mascara
and the white-face makeup of a mime, as well as (on occasion) a clear plastic
mask, and while that sounds pretentious, the element of concealment seems to have
liberated him. In concert, wearing flared jeans and a black vest and a hat
adorned on the left side with flowers, surrounded by musicians like T-Bone
Burnett and the haunting Goth violinist Scarlet Rivera, Dylan finally relaxes
into being the rock 'n' roller he dreamed of being from the moment he heard the
Byrds' version of 'Mr Tambourine Man'.
Scorsese's previous Dylan documentary, the searching and
cathartic 'No Direction Home: Bob Dylan' (2005), caught the churn of passion
and meaning that was funneled into the moment when Dylan went electric. But up
until the Rolling Thunder Revue tour, the rock-god stage persona that Dylan
sought didn't always mesh with the headiness of his folk-poetic roots. On the
1974 Before the Flood tour, he made great music but often seemed to be slamming
the words together ('It'sallrightmaI'monlybleeding!') as a form of rock cred.
In 'Rolling Thunder Revue', he takes command, letting his hair down and
strolling, if not strutting, the stage, his voice resonating from the depths,
lending astonishing force to songs from 'Simple Twist of Fate' to 'The Lonesome
Death of Hattie Carroll'. You feel like you could watch these songs forever.
As compelling as the music is, though, 'Rolling Thunder
Revue' is only partially a concert film. It's fundamentally a backstage slice
of the '70s that tips its hat to what may have been the last moment when a rock
'n' roll tour could be a scraggly communal party be-in that rarely touched
Scorsese revels in the vibrant slapdash
spontaneity of it all. He veers from Patti Smith telling a long, mesmerizing
anecdote on the stage of the Other End, where Dylan was hanging out on the
verge of the tour, to footage of the extended studio jam sessions that were the
only real rehearsals, to a party at Ginsberg's Lower East Side apartment, where
Dylan, smiling and never more scruffy-handsome, seems a touch more accessible
than he did a decade before in 'Don't Look Back', though he still wears that
invisible armor of untouchability.
Scorsese has taken a cue from the elusive rock star to weave
a fantastical mix of facts and imagination.
'It wasn't a success, not if you measure success in terms of
profit. But it was an adventure,' Dylan says in Scorsese's film.
'We are not calling it a documentary,' said Margaret Bodde,
one of the producers.
'The tour itself, not that movie, that's what we were
interested in,' said David Tedeschi, one of the editors on the Scorsese film.
By Owen Gleiberman