By turns glorious and thrilling, revealing and well — mythic and fictional — Martin Scorsese’s “Rolling Thunder Revue” joins the ranks of epic concert tour documentaries, capturing a moment in American roots music and the icon who conjured it.
Put it on the pantheon with “Don’t Look Back,” “Mad Dogs & Englishmen,” “Gimme Shelter” and “Festival Express” as a document of one of those incredible music made during a road show that lost somebody — if not everybody — a lot of money.
But when “promoter” Jim Gianopolus takes the credit for coming up with “the idea” for the tour, and sums up the financials for “Rolling Thunder,” he calls it a “disaster, a catastrophe,” we can’t actually tell how much of a debacle it was. Because Jim Gianopolus was never a concert promoter. He’s with Paramount Pictures, and Scorsese has him “playing” a promoter.
It doesn’t exactly spoil the grandiose feel of it all to see Sharon Stone telling a marvelous whopper about how Bob Dylan came up with the idea for wearing face paint thanks to her hanging out on the tour and wearing her KISS t-shirt.
But damn, Marty. Your movie’s 2:22 long and otherwise lovely and immersive. Why stick Michael Murphy as his “Tanner ’88” character in here, “remembering” how Jimmy Carter got him on the tour when “Tanner” was but a young Congressman?
Yeah, that’s a moment when anybody watching this who’s the least bit hip and yet hasn’t read a review maybe catches on that Scorsese and Dylan are having them on. A little. But yeah, you’re also wasting our time, Marty, because the movie doesn’t need the fiction.
Dylan saying, “I don’t remember a THING about Rolling Thunder. It happened so long ago I wasn’t even born.” is enough of a reminder. The man’s a changeling, a shaman and a con-artist. We remember. He’s not to be taken at his word.
The film’s full title is “Conjuring the Rolling Thunder Re-Vue,” and it begins with a little black and white silent cinema “magic,” and a lot of context — a Dylan small venue/too-many sidemen and women “Medicine Show” journey in the middle of the American Bicentennial, 1976, a last big hurrah for Americana music in America’s most Americana-obsessed moment.
“Saigon had fallen,” Dylan remembers. “People seemed to have lost their sense of conviction, for some reason.”
“Two people tried to shoot the president (Ford) in the same month!”
Scorsese builds on this interview and scores of others, some dating from the actual tour, and uses extensive concert footage and even snippets of Dylan’s abortive feature film project, “Renaldo and Clara” (scripted by Sam Shepard, interviewed here shortly before his death) to create this tribute to the “the inspired Dylan” who, as the late poet and tour-performer Allen Ginsberg remembered, was “back” and the reason for the tour in the first place.
You can’t help but think that nostalgia for the “family” of folk music, the hootenanny nature of folk music/poet parties, was part of Dylan’s thinking in pulling this economically unsustainable delight together. He missed what he’d once been.
Tour dates took them from Plymouth to Lowell and Bangor, Lakeland to Salt Lake City and odd points in between.
And along the way, Bob and Allen G. would visit Jack Kerouac’s grave in Lowell, Massachusetts, Bob would stop by CBS Records in New York to sit (stand) in on a planning session for the marketing of his epic (The Ballad of) “Hurricane.”
He’d drink beer from a can, goof around with the huge entourage and interact with women at after-parties, quizzing them, re-string his guitar just like the broke folkie he once was.
And then the next day, he’d launch into ethereal duets with his former love, Joan Baez, and tear through re-interpretations of the Bob Dylan Songbook, a tight but gloriously shambolic, impromptu-seeming band running through a setlist only the Maestro could explain. Which he never does.
Stand-out fiddler Scarlet Rivera related (back then) how she met Dylan — he almost hit her with his car. We see the exotic beauty and violin virtuoso swaying and playing, following his lead at his right shoulder, start to finish, in performance after performance.
Her playing defined this period in Dylan’s music, for some.
We see Bob Dylan driving an RV, back in the day, just like a future retiree. And in between hearing him in glorious voice, passionately reinventing his vast repertoire, we get another clue as to how seriously we should be taking his present-day explanations for what happened, and why.
He’s jokey, self-effacing, contrary and…coherent. There’s little of his mystical, cryptic have-one-over-on-us nonsense that long defined how he treated questions of any sort.
Dude must be acting the part.
A couple of favorite moments — the solemn, monk-like (dressed in dark raincoats) procession of touring musicians getting the under-the-falls tour at Niagara, and young Bob remembering a folk protest song from prodigious memory, “The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” by his contemporary Peter La Farge and playing it, off the cuff, on a visit to an Indian reservation.
The film’s fakery aside, “Rolling Thunder Revue” feels right at home among Scorsese’s music documentaries about the Stones, Dylan, The Blues, The Band and George Harrison, films not just to watch, but to savor and revel in.
And as you can tell from the links included in this review, it’s a real down-the-Internet rabbit hole for anybody really into the subject (like Scorsese), the times, the lucky souls who got to participate, and the fans who, in one sequence after the lights have come back up, sit slack-jawed and weeping at the music they’d just experienced.
Cast: Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Allen Ginsburg, Roger McGuinn, Ronee Blakely, Sam Shepard, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Sharon Stone and Joni Mitchell
Credits: Directed by Martin Scorsese. A Netflix release.
Running time: 2:22