Documentary Review – Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese

“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:

Spotify link

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:

Rolling Stone Guide to What’s Fake in Dylan documentary

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:

Spotify link

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:

Spotify link

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.

 

25 thoughts on “Documentary Review – Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese

    1. I meant it quite literally. They drove a bus cross country and in every on-the-road shot, Dylan is literally the bus driver. Now, whether they did a few fun shots that way or he was really the driver, I don’t know. But it was certainly true in those shots. And nobody reacted in the least as if it was unusual.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Looks like fun. I’m going to look for it.

    Speaking of Dylan, that is of Dylan junior Jakob Dylan, recently, I watched another cool documentary about Laurel Canyon called “Echo In The Canyon.”

    The film was narrated by Dylan and included interviews with amazing artists, such as Tom Petty, Jackson Brown, Brian Wilson, Roger McGuinn, David Crosby and Stephen Stills. The film also showed Dylan and other musicians performing music by artists who lived in Laurel Canyon during the second half of the ’60s.

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        1. Yes! How about that? I actually debated just waiting for Netflix or whatever. But I read about it and figured, screw it, I’ll just go. Sometimes I just flip a coin. Sure nice to see Petty in what turned out to be his last interview. The Aussie guy sent me a link to how central Zappa was to that Laurel Canyon scene. But minus one small bit with Steven Stills he was barely mentioned.

          BTW, a new doc about David Crosby just came out called ‘Remember My Name.’ Doesn’t seem to be playing around here so I might wait for that one. I like the guy but to me he was just one more character .

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        2. Admittedly, in my case it was kind of a spontaneous decision that was triggered after I had watched the trailer on Facebook. When I realized how many cool artists were interviewed for the film, it got my attention. Then I noticed it was only shown in select movie theaters on certain dates, so I literally had to plan watching the movie.

          Overall, I thought it was fun, including the covers played by Jakob Dylan and the other musicians.

          Thanks for flagging the Crosby documentary. He’s an interesting character for sure. I’ll look for it.

          Also, and as a Springsteen you probably know this already, there’s a new documentary about Clarence Clemons called “Who Do I Think I Am.” Now that’s one I really wanna see. This guy was just a crazy sax player!

          Here’s the trailer.

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        3. No, I had no idea about the Clemons movie. I will check that out. I did, however, read his autobio a few years back which my wife gave me. Interesting take about being a black man in a white rock world. Not always fun. But being a rock star? Great!

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        4. In the meantime, I found out, the documentary primarily focuses on Clemons’ spiritual side and a related trip to China in 2003, not on his time with the E Street Band. Evidently, Springsteen is in it but wasn’t interviewed. One of the musicians that was is Joe Walsh. In any case, I’m intrigued and plan look for it.

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        5. Thanks, yep, saw that in the meantime as well.

          Unfortunately, most of the screenings in movie theaters are over. There only appears to be one left in Newton, Pa. on Aug 16. That’s about one hour away from my house. I’ve traveled much further for music, so might consider that!😀

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        6. Wow, you’re definitely more dedicated than I am. I’m just gonna wait for the fucking thing to show up on streaming. Not too long ago I bought us a nice 4k TV and Soundbar. So while it’s not movie theater quality, it ain’t half bad. 🙂

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        7. I think that the 4K TV is the first time we have ever been ahead of the curve, electronics-wise. It looks great but there isn’t yet a hell of a lot of content. Sports are terrific. They’re already pushing 8k TVs but don’t fall for it. I watched a whole thing on YouTube about how our eyes can’t even see pixels that small. 4k barely.

          Liked by 1 person

        8. True. But in their zeal to sell product, I wouldn’t put it past Sony or Samsung to offer a coupon for enhanced eyeballs to keep up with your new 8 or 12k TV! It’ll be total crap but they’ll sell a million of them till our justice system catches up. 🙂

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  2. One of my all time favorite films is ‘The Last Waltz’. That and the blues doc (which I really liked) Martin did are the only music films I’ve seen by him. This looks a little patch worked by the sounds of it. Your back ground research sounds more interesting than the film.
    So much is written and said about Dylan that I tuned out years ago. I have always liked the way he messed with the media/press. I think down a the core he’s just a Minnesota boy at heart. Here’s the thing Doc, I still like his music but going to see him live now …. I think I’ll come over to your house and watch The Last Waltz on that new toy you have.

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    1. ‘Patchwork’ is a pretty good description not only of this flick but pretty much any film Dylan is involved in. That said, there were patches of it I really dug that made it worth watching – the ’70’s feel, the scenes with Baez, etc. But it certainly won’t wind up on CB’s Pic o’ the week.

      Until I did this piece, I didn’t realize how many music films Scorsese had done or that I’d seen all of them, several in theaters. He has a good eye (and ear) for this shit. You might know that there were some albums put out under his name with the ‘Blues’ series. And I can still remember his use of Nilsson in the pivotal climax of ‘Goodfellas’ and I think that movie rolled credits over the ‘Layla’ piano solo.

      As to Dylan, his self-confidence bordering on arrogance was always enough for him to fuck with the press. He just did not care.

      CB is certainly welcome to come over and watch ‘Waltz.’ Feel free to bring the gal, Princess Felda, Big Earl, Lefty Louie, Lucy in the Sky and all the rest. CB will have to bring his own cigars and, unfortunately, smoke out on the porch. There’s also a lake not too far away where we can go smoke on the water.

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      1. Martin and Robertson have collaborated on a few soundtracks. I’m pretty sure they did Casino, Color Of Money , Carney and a few others. He does have an ear. I have a couple of those cds from that blues series. A Hendrix one for sure.
        I heard Bob was in Winnipeg a few years ago asking the folks who own the house where Neil Young grew up in, if he could walk around and catch the vibe. Now that’s the real Bobby. Those cold winter guys have to stick together.
        No need to light it I’ll just chew on it. Smoking in water can be done as long as i haven’t had to many cocktails.

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        1. I had never really thought about whether Dylan was a Neil fan or vice-versa. Guess it makes sense. As it happens, they’re both touring Europe and just performed together. You can find that on YouTube if you’re so inclined but I haven’t been able to listen to Dylan’s voice for about the past 20 years .Churchill went through tons of cigars but he used to chew on them too. What is it, like a pacifier?

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        2. Actually I like Bob’s later out put. ‘Time Out Of Mind’ etc. Old Joan never grabbed me. I can’t get past her version of the Bands ‘Dixie’.
          It’s all in the taste for tobacco Doc. Winnie was chewing on a better class than CB. I’m an old chaw guy from way back. Got the taste at an early age.

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    1. I’m good with his singing from the early days right up to at least through this period. But even the later classics like “Time out of Mind” are hard for me because by that point I no longer dig his voice. And now, well, I think he should get off the road and find new artists to produce. Harsh, but to me he’s unlistenable. Like he’s trying (and failing) to be Tom Waits. Sigh. Another one I had chances to see (once, notably with Van Morrison) and failed to do so.

      My headstone will say, “Boy he saw a lot of great bands but really blew it on Zep, Doors, Hendrix, Dylan, and a few others. Still, rock and roll will never die.” Lengthy I know. But so on point. 🙂

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