Rolling Thunder Review

I was there. But I didn’t make it into the movie.

Marty Scorsese’s latest film was released yesterday, not in theatres but on Netflix, which seems to be taking over the filmmaking world. Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story is a look back at Bob Dylan’s landmark 1975 tour.

It is an interesting choice for a filmmaker. Scorsese has taken archival footage and augmented it with new interview footage from some of the participants, including Dylan. I would not consider this a documentary – there is a considerable amount of fiction in the narrative, interviews which need to be taken with a grain of salt.

It is not Scorsese’s first foray into music, or even his first round with Dylan. They worked together more than 40 years ago on The Last Waltz, and Scorsese has also made movies about The Rolling Stones and George Harrison.

Dylan, never one to cooperate with interviewers, claims he can’t remember why they decided to tour, that there really was no purpose to it. The archival footage however hints at the purpose. The tour was a search for the heart of America, a desire to find meaning. A restless Dylan was looking for more in life and convinced some friends to join in his quest for the Holy Grail.

As a Dylan fan, I enjoyed the movie. There is a passion and raw energy to Dylan’s performances. He appears to be a man on a mission, spitting out the words, drawing the audience into intimacy. The band is tight, the chemistry between musicians, especially Dylan and Joan Baez, legendary.

I am not sure though just how much this film would appeal to those who aren’t already familiar with Dylan and his music. Maybe that doesn’t matter – the man has a Nobel prize, there are few who aren’t aware of at least some of his work.

That Scorsese chooses to ignore the other film of the tour, Renaldo and Clara, is curious. Then again, I’ve neve seen that film, which has a reputation of being shall we say less than stellar. Still, much of the footage he uses, if not from that film, would have been shot for it. If anything, my appetite for seeing Renaldo and Clara has now when whetted.

Dylan has just released am album commemorating the Rolling Thunder Revue, which I decided not to buy. It is 14 CDs, but it is pretty much all Dylan. Rolling Thunder was an ensemble show. For me there are fond memories of Roger McGuire doing Chestnut mare and Joni Mitchell singing Coyote, a song she had written just days before the show I saw, in Quebec City, which I think was the first time she had sung it in public. (There is a version of it in the film, filmed at Gordon Lightfoot’s house.) Joan Baez doing Diamonds and Rust, a song she wrote about Dylan, was another one of the highlights. (Now that I think about it, there are no Baez solo tunes in the movie, even though she had equal billing with Dylan on the tour.)

Despite Dylan’s supposed memory lapse today, Rolling Thunder was indeed a tour with a purpose, though there was a lot of chaos involved. Part of that was publicity and seeking justice for imprisoned boxer Reuben Carter, immortalized in Dylan’s tune “Hurricane.” But there was more than that.

Rolling Thunder was a quest. Dylan and his knights had tasted success; they felt there must be more to life. They went looking for the heart and soul of America, to see if there was truth in the founding myths; I don’t think Scorsese really captures that. Maybe he didn’t know what questions to ask. Maybe he asked them, and the answers scared him. Whichever, this is not a deep movie – except for Dylan’s lyrics.

I am still waiting for someone to explore the spiritual aspects of the Rolling Thunder Revue. Maybe Dylan and company found that America wasn’t enough. Maybe they didn’t like what they found. Several of the musicians on the tour, including Dylan, McGuinn, T-Bone Burnett, Steve Soles and David Mansfield, would become Christians not long after the tour ended. Was that just coincidence? Or did something about Rolling Thunder influence their spiritual quest? You won’t find out from this film.

I enjoyed Rolling Thunder Revue, but if you really want a documentary of the tour, Larry Sloman’s book On The Road With Bob Dylan, is a tour diary of sorts that will give you a much better picture of what happened (and will let you identify Scorsese’s additions – if it isn’t in the book, it is filmmaking licence). Sloman’s style is annoying at times, but if you are looking for the truth about the tour, it is a better place to start.

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