“It’s beautiful music when the thunder rolls.” – Native American Rolling Thunder, as quoted in the film.
Wikipedia: “The Rolling Thunder Revue was a concert tour by American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan with numerous musicians and previous collaborators. (Dylan drives the bus! -ME). The purpose of the tour was to allow Dylan, who had now become a major recording artist and concert performer, to play in smaller auditoriums in less populated cities where he could be more intimate with his audiences.
Some of the performers on the tour were Joan Baez, Roger McGuinn, Joni Mitchell, Ronee Blakely, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. Bob Neuwirth assembled the backing musicians from the Desire sessions, including violinist Scarlet Rivera, bassist Rob Stoner, and drummer Howie Wyeth.*
I found it amusing that someone in the documentary tried to make the argument that it was not Dylan or Dylan/Baez and a backing band but a real band. Sure. Nice democratic try. And they just happened to be doing all Dylan songs. And take Dylan/Baez out of the equation, see who shows up.
“The tour included 57 concerts in two legs—the first in the American northeast and Canada in the fall of 1975, and the second in the American South and Southwest in the spring of 1976.” Here’s the trailer:
On that first leg, there were 25 shows, 16 of which were held in New England, one in Lowell. I mention this because A) I had by then by a fan of Dylan’s for a number of years and B) I was living in Lowell at the time. And didn’t go! To any of these shows. And for the life of me, I don’t know why.
Hell, I even remember when Dylan and “beat poet” Allen Ginsberg visited Jack Kerouac’s grave in Lowell. It was big news. Alas, never saw Dylan and the horrible way he sounds now, I never will.
On to more positive things, specifically the documentary. I wondered why it took 44 years to release this movie since much of the tour was filmed. Actually, it took that long to get a documentary released but apparently various versions were released to a somewhat lukewarm reception.
If you’re curious about what motivated Scorsese to make this film, he explains that quite well here. For those who may be unaware, Scorsese has a long history of being involved in music, from a directorial point of view.
He was one of the editors of the original Woodstock film. In 1978 he directed The Band’s Last Waltz. In 2005 he directed a Dylan documentary called No Direction Home. In 2008 he directed a Stones concert called Shine a Light. And in 2011 he directed a documentary called George Harrison: Living in the Material World. For the record, he also did a public television documentary in 2003 called The Blues.
So how is the doc? Well, at first I had a hard time warming up to it. It seemed to be the usual haphazard Dylan thrown-together affair, with Scorsese doing new interviews to pull it all together. But gradually I got into it. I enjoy hearing Dylan being interviewed because while he tends to maintain that mystical, aloof attitude, he usually mutters something worth hearing.
Joan Baez is also interviewed and she’s her usual no-bullshit self. Clearly, the two former lovers still have affection for each other. Baez remains bemused by Dylan’s “Dylanness.” Bob has nothing but good things to say about her, loving how their voices sound together (fantastic!) and how he hears her voice in his sleep. (Or words to that effect.)
There’s a nice scene in the movie where the two of them are having an intimate – or as intimate as you can get on-camera – conversation. They dance around the “we could have gotten married” topic with Baez somewhat coquettishly asking how Dylan likes her dress. Fun to see these two icons getting all romantically mushy like us normal folks.
Here they are doing “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine,” which was originally from 1967’s John Wesley Harding:
If you know anything about Dylan, you know he likes to fuck with people’s heads. And so it should not entirely come as a surprise that there is some total made-up bullshit in this movie.
For example, no, a young Sharon Stone did not attend this revue with her mother and meet Dylan while wearing a Kiss T-shirt. One hundred percent horseshit and Stone goes along for the ride, fake interview, Photoshopped pictures and all. It took Rolling Stone about two minutes to suss this out:
A song of Dylan’s I’ve always loved is the doomy “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall”, written prior to the Cuban Missile Crisis and released shortly after. Here Dylan jacks it up Chuck Berry-style and it might as well be about his favorite 50’s Chevy. It sounds like an outtake from Highway 61. But I dig it anyway:
The tour ended up – as, I suppose it must – at Madison Square Garden in December 1975. The concert was billed as “The Night of the Hurricane” in reference to Dylan’s cause for the then still-imprisoned Rubin “Hurricane” Carter.** He played the song “Hurricane” from the yet-to-be-released Desire album. (Released January 1976.)
The sampler from the tour that’s online at Spotify does not have the MSG version so the one from Lowell Memorial Auditorium will make do nicely, thank you:
Late in the flick, a gorgeous high-cheekboned Joni Mitchell shows up and jams backstage (with Dylan and Roger McGuinn) on the then-new “Coyote.” Her reception from the audience is not good, largely because (one supposes) they all wanna hear her old stuff. Which, for whatever reason, she refuses to do. But you know, fuck that. It sounded great.
The video says it was filmed at Gordon Lightfoot’s home so I guess it must have been when the tour swung up to Toronto near the end:
So if you’re a Dylan fan, sure, this documentary is worth watching. It’s fun to see Seventies kids who say shit like, ‘Man, I just wanna get high’ knowing that they’re now all parents and/or grandparents who would shit if they heard their kids say that. It plays somewhat like an episode of That 70’s Show at points. But if you watched the Scorsese interview, it is remarkable to see that young girl so moved by the concert that she breaks down in tears. The only time I ever do that is if I have good steak and cold brew.
*”Uninterested in performing in a country/folk milieu, Patti Smith amicably declined Dylan’s invitation. Bruce Springsteen also turned down an invitation “because he had plenty of touring commitments of his own and was on a roll” following the breakthrough success of Born to Run, released that August.
However, Dylan did add one surprising element to the Rolling Thunder Revue when Mick Ronson agreed to join the tour. Ronson was the lead guitarist and arranger in David Bowie’s former backing band, The Spiders from Mars.”
**Carter was released in 1985, said “Fuck you” to the country that tried to railroad him, headed to Canada and became a citizen there. He’s interviewed in the movie. If you happen not to know the Rubin Carter/Dylan intersecting story, it’s here.