Bob Dylan’s life and career are so encased in myth that it can be hard to untangle the romanticism from the reality. As much a symbol as he is a man, Dylan has spent most of his adulthood resisting being labeled the voice of his generation while slyly welcoming fans’ desire to dissect his every utterance, devoting much of the last couple decades opening up the vaults to release a series of official “bootleg” recordings associated with his most iconic albums and tours. He invites us to look deeper and listen harder, as if the answers can be gleaned from closer study. Long before David Bowie, Tom Waits, Madonna or Lady Gaga dabbled in persona play, Robert Zimmerman made us ponder masks in popular music. He’s both there and not there, which can be frustrating and fascinating.
Both sensations are on display in Rolling Thunder Revue, the oft-spectacular, sometimes shtick-y chronicle of Dylan’s 1975 Rolling Thunder tour. As is typical when depicting anything in the Dylan universe, this concert film/documentary simultaneously oversells its subject’s genius and provides overwhelming evidence of what a brilliant artist he is. More layers of myth are applied while trying to present an honest account of a tour and a performer. At nearly two-and-a-half hours, Rolling Thunder Revue is overlong but also overpowering, inconclusive yet undeniably stirring. It left me exhausted, but I kinda want to see it again.
The documentary’s full title should also be a disclaimer: Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese. Early on, the movie features a contemporary interview from Dylan confessing that he doesn’t quite remember what prompted Rolling Thunder or what his ambitions were. “I don’t have a clue because it’s about nothing,” he says, another example of obscuration and seduction. The movie is a “story,” which means some parts might be invented or exaggerated, and because it’s “by Martin Scorsese,” the whole film is filtered through one artist’s perspective on another. The Oscar-winning director has featured Dylan a few times in his films—he’s the marquee guest in The Last Waltz and the subject of the sprawling PBS portrait No Direction Home—but he’s never before been so enthralled at playing with the singer-songwriter’s myth, riffing and expanding on the legends that have built up around Dylan over the years. Go to the internet if you want to read explainers that break down the logistics, context and particulars of Rolling Thunder. Scorsese is after something grander than mere documentation.
No amount of enthusiastic scholarly exegesis will convince me that this tour was among Dylan’s creative highpoints. Revisit The Bootleg Series Vol. 5: Bob Dylan Live 1975, a two-disc set from 2002 that’s now been expanded into the new 14-disc The Rolling Thunder Revue: The 1975 Live Recordings, and you’ll hear a musician bringing fresh life to his 1960s chestnuts while also exploring newer material from Blood on the Tracks and the yet-to-be-released Desire. But much of what’s written about Rolling Thunder—the tour’s traveling-circus environment, the bittersweet reunion with past peers (Joan Baez and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott were part of the bill), the emphasis on spontaneity and community, Dylan’s wearing of white makeup on stage, the disastrous filming of the woebegone Renaldo and Clara project—has always been more intellectually intriguing than artistically satisfying. Rolling Thunder Revue is at its weakest when it tries to disabuse me of my beliefs about this tour through strained grasps at historical significance. It’s amazing when it just shows the actual performances.
Because Dylan has been documented so often in films, we have a record of his different onstage iterations. The gangly, arrogant young mastermind of Don’t Look Back isn’t the same man we see in The Last Waltz with more than a decade of stardom and maturity in him. Rolling Thunder was only about a year before that Last Waltz performance, but the Dylan we see in the wondrously restored archival footage is as focused and vital as any live Dylan I’ve ever encountered.
Whether in 2003’s Masked and Anonymous or during his so-called current Never Ending Tour, the man has preferred lately to adopt the guise of a humble, mystical troubadour speaking spectral truths with an Old Testament-rigid sense of right and wrong. By comparison, there’s no elder-statesman majesty in Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue sets—just a feverish commitment to delivering every word with unbridled urgency. Edited by David Tedeschi—who’s worked with Scorsese on No Direction Home and also George Harrison: Living in the Material World—the selected clips reveal new power in songs both classic (“Simple Twist of Fate”) and marginal (“Isis”). What you see and hear in Rolling Thunder Revue is a 34-year-old superstar trying to reclaim his relevance after years of domesticity and halfhearted records. It’s a Dylan we rarely see: one with something to prove.
Those electric performances—buttressed by arena-rock guitars and Scarlet Rivera’s chainsaw-ferocious violin—are so transporting you may wish Scorsese had dispensed with interviews from Baez, playwright Sam Shepard and others, who largely tell you the same things you always hear in artist-approved music documentaries. Turns out, Dylan was a hard person to get to know. Also, he’s a true artist, always challenging himself. These and other clichés take up too much time in Rolling Thunder Revue, and they’re complemented by Scorsese’s attempts to connect these concerts with America’s bicentennial, creating an impression that Dylan and his fellow travelers were touring the country not just to play some songs but to take the full measure of our fractured nation in the wake of Watergate and Vietnam. No amount of Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter clips sufficiently make that case, however, and it’s disappointing that Scorsese tries to inflate the tour’s importance through that particular framing device.
But that’s not the only gambit Scorsese tries. We don’t often think of documentaries requiring spoiler alerts, but be aware that Rolling Thunder Revue isn’t completely nonfiction. A few of the film’s talking heads … aren’t who they claim to be, and the movie does nothing to distinguish what’s real and what’s invented. Perhaps not surprisingly, the documentary opens with old-timey footage of a magic trick, Scorsese’s way of coyly suggesting that a little sleight-of-hand awaits the viewer.
For those who go into Rolling Thunder Revue expecting some deception, the effect can be a little off-putting. In one sense, Scorsese is interrogating the very notion of “absolute truth” in documentary filmmaking: Should we be so trusting of the people who are presented on camera as experts? But at the same time, the movie’s playful, screwing-around quality too easily feels like yet another attempt to burnish Dylan’s myth, shrouding this story in needless misdirection. Of course, Dylan’s own on-camera interviews are predictably murky, the genius speaking in riddles and non sequiturs, like he’s narrating some lost chapter from his terrific 2004 memoir, Chronicles: Volume One.
Even so, Rolling Thunder Revue finds something poetic and riveting about this particular moment in Dylan’s life. We see him meet with the suits at his label, and we watch him hang out at Jack Kerouac’s grave with old friend Allen Ginsberg. How could these be the same person—the savvy businessman and the hippie artist? (A bit of footage of Dylan speaking with jailed boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, who inspired Desire’s most famous song, is another of the film’s treats.)
Rolling Thunder Revue brushes past so many intriguing contradictions and insights into Dylan that, as Dylan himself probably prefers, the film starts inviting you to draw your own conclusions and make your own connections. As stellar as so many of the live Dylan songs are, perhaps the most disarming scene in the entire movie comes when Joni Mitchell sings her own “Coyote” while strumming an acoustic guitar in an apartment while Dylan plays along silently. For all of its insistence that Rolling Thunder thrust and parried with a shifting America, Rolling Thunder Revue quite poignantly—and quite unassumingly—becomes an accidental snapshot of a group of performers when they were still young. Several of the people we see in the film are dead, and of course the ones who aren’t are far older now, their halcyon days behind them.
And no matter its shortcomings, the film telepathically communicates what remains so arresting about Dylan, both the myth and the man. Rolling Thunder Revue builds to an ending I wasn’t expecting that underlines the songwriter’s eternal mystery and his undeterred desire to engage his audience in that mystery. Dylan swears he has no memory of Rolling Thunder or what he was trying to achieve. The movie proves he’s full of shit—but, in a way, so is the movie. That’s no reason not to savor them both.
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.