Martin Scorsese‘s Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story (Netflix, 6.12) is an episodic concert film with a roving attitude and a hodgepodge capturing of Bob Dylan‘s Rolling Thunder Revue through New England in the fall of ’75. Mish-mashy, whimsical, good-natured, sometimes deeply stirring and in four or five spots flat-out wonderful.
But there’s one aspect, I regret to add, that’s vaguely bothersome in a half-assed sideshow kind of way.
Boomers will naturally enjoy it more than GenXers, Millennials and GenZ, but what do you expect from a doc about the late Gerald Ford era (with a little Jimmy Carter thrown in)?
Scorsese delivers ample concert footage, road footage, backstage footage and rural atmosphere footage, plus several present-tense talking heads (including Dylan himself) providing explanation and commentary. And then he throws in some red-leaf lettuce, salad dressing, chopped radishes, carrots, celery and kale and tosses it all around.
The doc is all over the map in a splotchy, rambunctious sort of way, but it’s mostly a fun, relaxing ride — a 140-minute road journey with some very cool and confident people. There’s one aspect that isn’t fun, as mentioned, and that has to do with what Toronto Star film critic (and former music critic) Peter Howell calls “the four fakers.” But I’ll address that in the next post.
The idea behind the RTR was for Dylan and a troupe of musician performers (Joan Baez, Roger McGuinn, Mick Ronson, Joni Mitchell, Ronee Blakely, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Scarlet Rivera, Rob Stoner, Howie Wyeth) to become (i.e., pretend to be) roving troubadours in the tradition of Italy’s comedia delle’arte (Dylan performed in white face a la Gene Simmons), and thereby achieve a certain casual, give-and-take intimacy with the crowds by playing smaller venues.
That’s all it was — an opportunity to keep things modest and funky by avoiding the usual huge stadiums. It wasn’t about tricks, games, jugglers, clowns or sleight-of-hand. It was just a straight proposition about playing music on the down-low and keeping it real.
The doc actually unfolded in two phases — the first in New England/Canada in the fall of 1975, and the second in the American south and southwest in the spring of ’76. The January ’76 release of Dylan’s Desire fell between the two with many of the songs performed in the first leg taken from that yet-to-be released album.
I think Scorsese’s doc might have better been titled Rambling Thunder Revue. It’s kind of a mess, but not a bothersome one. It’s patchy and spotty but mostly cheerful, friendly and spirit-lifting. As salad-tossed concert docs go it’s wholly agreeable.
There are three musical highlights — Dylan’s performing of “Isis” (a hard-charging song off Desire) and a rock version of “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall”, and a portion of Joni Mitchell performing an early acoustic version of “Coyote” with Dylan playing along. I also loved an excerpt of a conversation between Dylan and Baez about how their romance fell apart and…oh, hell, 20 or 30 other little things. The doc never bores — I can tell you that.
If Scorsese’s film is any one thing, it’s a kind of cinematic love letter to a bygone culture of 43 and 1/2 years ago — a tribute to a long-ago era (long hair, Kiss, flared jeans, Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, coal eye makeup, the last classic-rock gasp before the punk explosion, face-paint, Frye boots, pre-computers, pre-iPhone, pre-twitter, pre-everything)…to that whole raggedy-ass mid ‘70s vibe and attitude and way of being and living…hell, call it a valentine to bygone youth.
Overall a cool, enjoyable, fascinating visitation…diverting and pleasing as far as it goes and occasionally wowser. (At least by my musical yardstick.) But it’s all over the fucking map.