The latest ‘documentary’ from Martin Scorsese opens with a magic trick. In a film by Georges Méliès, a magician drapes a sheet over a woman sitting in a chair. Seconds later, the magician lifts the sheet and the woman has disappeared. The trick here is a simple, conspicuous jump cut; a transparent illusion that provokes more humour than it does awe. In Rolling Thunder Revue, our illusionist is Bob Dylan, yet his tricks – along with Scorsese’s – spur complete wonderment.
The film follows Dylan and his circuslike troupe of artists as they embark on the most deeply performative tour of his career. Joining the Hibbing troubadour on the road are the likes of Joan Baez, Allen Ginsberg, Mick Ronson, Ronee Blakley, with special appearances by artists suchas Patti Smith and Joni Mitchell. Scorsese presents rare new interviews with Dylan alongside those of Baez, Blakley, and Sam Shepard. The film also includes interviews from fictional characters while making no overt attempt to raise awareness of their deceitfulness. Furthermore, the film – with purpose, of course – fails to mention Renaldo and Clara, the four-hour long experimental film Dylan directed while on the eponymous 1975 tour that contained a mix of concert footage, behind the scenes content, and a fully scripted narrative. It is from the hours of footage shot for that project that Scorsese and his team assembled his Bob Dylan Story – Story, of course, being the key word. In fact, the only moment in the film in which Scorsese reveals his cards is at the very end, during the final credits. Each of the film’s subjects is assigned a role – much in the vein of how Dylan credited his subjects in Renaldo and Clara. Baez is The Balladeer, Blakley is The Ingenue, Shepard is The Writer, Patti Smith is The Punk Poet, and Michael Murphy’s Rep. Jack Tanner (Yes, that Tanner, from Altman’s mocumentary) is The Politician.
Breathtaking performances – shot in close-up – of songs like “One More Cup of Coffee”, “Hurricane”, and “Romance in Durango” are padded by moments of joy and heartbreak. Watching Allen Ginsberg read his Kaddish to a group of seniors is deliciously funny. One interaction between Dylan and former lover Joan Baez – likely staged for Renaldo and Clara – is absolutely devastating. Though Dylan tragically spurned Baez years before, Baez nevertheless takes another chance on the man she wrote the punchy “Diamonds and Rust” ballad months earlier. The two discuss their failed marriages, Dylan’s to Sara Lownds (of whom he wrote about in “Sad of Lady of the Lowlands” and “Sara”) and Baez’s to David Harris (who gave name to her 1969 album David’s Album). Dylan reflects on the relationship and what could have been, though Baez reminds him that he was the first to run off and get married. Dylan pauses, starting into a void as he often does, before replying, with classic Bob Dylan scathing sneer, “Yeah, but I married the woman I love!” Staged or not, it is moments like these that remind the viewer just how unreachable this man was for so many people. In one of the film’s more lighthearted moments, Blakley recalls a time when she discussed Dylan with guitarist (and member of Bowie’s Spiders from Mars) Mick Ronson, who proclaimed that though he shared radical chemistry on stage with Dylan every night of the tour, he simply didn’t know the man at all.
Audiences of the Rolling Thunder Revue were treated to a Dylan they had never seen before, and would never see again. The tour saw Dylan donning face paint (perhaps inspired by KISS, or Mick Ronson’s work with Bowie, or neither) and masks. The introverted poet uses these disguises to embrace the carnivalesque show, yielding a new identity in the process. Anyone who has seen Dylan live outside of this 1975 tour will find the man unrecognizable. This Dylan thrives in the spotlight, while the Dylan of today sits unlit hidden behind a piano towards the back of the stage.
With the Rolling Thunder Revue Scorsese and his collaborators provide an unique documentary experience in which the viewer gets closer to the heart of Dylan than ever before, whilst paradoxically pushed away by the walls that shield the persona of one of the greatest poets of our time.