Bob Dylan has been putting us on for 57 years. When the finger-pointing folkie with a nasally voice first came on the Greenwich Village scene, he pretended to be a train-hopping Okie from the back pages of The Grapes of Wrath. Turns out he was a middle-class Jewish kid whose father ran an electronic appliance shop.
By 1966 "Dylanology" was an actual thing. Journalists and weirdos rummaged through his trash, trying to separate fact from fiction. D.A. Pennebaker's groundbreaking film Don't Look Back had only stoked the flames. Did Bob Dylan really think he had a better voice than Enrico Caruso? Why is he always wearing dark glasses? Is he on something?
Some facts have been verified. His '66 acoustic/electric tour — now celebrated as a high point of 20th century performance — was met with jeers from the mellow fans who wanted to hear him sing about how the times they were a-changing, but not to actually change. Then he suffered a motorcycle crash and retreated to the Woodstock area. There he settled in with his touring group (later known as The Band) and recorded a deep vault of tracks called The Basement Tapes, but at the time slipped out into rock consciousness as The Great White Wonder, pop culture's first widely circulated "bootleg."
The songs seemed plucked from another time. (Read Greil Marcus' 1997 history of the recordings, Invisible Republic, where you'll find the beginning of an oft-used phrase for the source of this music: "The Old, Weird America.") By this point the Dylan that upended music (the Dylan of "Like A Rolling Stone") was done. When The Beatles and the Stones dove into day-glo psychedelia he retreated into black-and-white American myth with albums like John Wesley Harding.
He also stopped touring. Indeed, part of the crush of humanity that bombarded the 1969 Woodstock Festival was the unsubstantiated rumor that Dylan would appear. (In a typically Dylan move, he skipped the concert he could have walked to, but showed up at the less celebrated Isle of Wight festival in the British Channel.)
The Band were major concert draws by 1974, so Dylan finally reappeared on the road with them for a very successful tour. When that was done, Dylan was inspired to try something a little different. (The Band stayed a major act for two more years. Their Last Waltz was filmed by Martin Scorsese, still one of the finest concert movies ever.)
Dylan decided to play smaller venues in oddball places. Plymouth, Massachusetts, is rarely a kick-off for a major tour, but it worked perfectly for what he had in mind. The "Rolling Thunder Revue" would be something like a carnival coming into town. It wasn't just Dylan, it was a makeshift group of acts (sometimes called "Guam," for reasons I still don't know) that included Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Joan Baez, and Bob Neuwirth. Dylan's backup band included Roger McGuinn of The Byrds, a mysterious violinist named Scarlett Rivera who leaned into the "gypsy" vibe and carried swords around, and lead guitarist Mick Ronson of David Bowie fame. Poet/activist Allen Ginsburg and longtime Dylan hype-man was on the tour reciting poetry. Joni Mitchell showed up along the way, too.
It wasn't just a concert, it was a traveling movie studio. Dylan had hired playwright and actor Sam Shepard to create scenarios, and camera people were there to shoot scenes with Dylan, his wife Sara, the assembled musicians, and a Rolling Stone reporter/jester named Larry "Ratso" Sloman. (Yes, longtime Howard Stern fans, you read that right.)
The resultant film was called Renaldo and Clara. It ran for almost four hours. And it is basically unwatchable. No, I don't just mean it is hard to find — a bootleg from German television is easily found online (and VHS tapes have been circulating forever). I mean it is a dreadful, confusing bore, even if you are a huge Dylan fan; a wheels-within-wheels put on (with Ronnie Hawkins playing "Bob Dylan," for starters) that thinks it is meaningful, but is actually quite tedious. Of course, the concert footage from the time period is terrific.
How terrific? In 1975 Dylan released Hard Rain, a live album from the second leg of this tour. In 2002 he released the two-disc The Bootleg Series Vol. 5: Bob Dylan Live 1975, The Rolling Thunder Revue, and this week we'll see the 14-disc The Rolling Thunder Revue: The 1975 Live Recordings boxed set. It's no wonder that Martin Scorsese, who already did a fairly straightforward early Dylan doc, No Direction Home in 2005, would want to sink his teeth into this era.
Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story By Martin Scorsese earns that mouthful of a title. It is a great marriage of artist(s) and repertoire, and might slip past some people as just another talking head music doc. It's actually far more sly than that.
Dylan was putting on a show. On the Rolling Thunder tour he and his band wore white face paint and masks. Was this some sort of social commentary (the name Rolling Thunder being an American Indian chief as well as a Nixon-era term) or did Dylan really catch the band KISS in concert, as he claims, and think their schtick was cool? We'll never know. Especially after watching this film.
The period footage — much of which is found in Renaldo and Clara, but not all (not even close) — is presented in Scorsese's "story" as shot by a European director Dylan hired named Van Dorp. It seems legit at first, but it never happened. The talking head reflecting on the excitement of the Rolling Thunder tour is actually actor Martin von Haselberg, probably best known for being Bette Midler's husband. (Midler appears in the audience of one scene, shot at Gerde's Folk City, for two seconds.) It's weird.
Also weird: Late in the film the conversation turns to how much of a Dylan fan President Jimmy Carter was. Is this true? Dylan used the momentum of Rolling Thunder to shine a light on social justice causes like the incarceration of Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, and to visit American Indian reservations. So it seems likely, until we reveal that the "witness" is a politician that looks a vaguely familiar. Ah, yes, Rep. Jack Tanner is actually actor Michael Murphy, and that's a character from an old HBO mockumentary by Robert Altman and Garry Trudeau. (Ronee Blakely is one of the "Guam" performers, if you are looking for more conceptual continuity.)
So what really is the truth here? I don't quite know. It doesn't really matter (although TMZ types will surely need more intel on whether 34-year-old Dylan slept with 19-year-old Sharon Stone!!). What I do know is that the music from the '75 tour absolutely rips, and songs like "One More Cup Of Coffee (For The Road)," "Isis," and "Romance In Durango" sound absolutely fantastic all cleaned-up and remastered.
The performances, many of which are presented as complete songs, are fiery and representative of a brilliant artist settling into a new groove. A punchline to the Rolling Thunder Revue is that Dylan, who had almost given up on touring, has never really left the road to this day. It hasn't all been smooth sailing (oy Down In The Groove era, what the hell happened there?) but the printout of concert dates since 1975 that closes out this film is extraordinary.
More impressive, though, is how Scorsese and his editors have sculpted not quite a narrative from the Renaldo and Clara archives, but a never-boring window into this moment in rock and American history. The backstage antics, when stripped of an ill-conceived movie plot, are gripping and funny.
As the tour moves on and the show gets longer, Allen Ginsburg's poetry section ends up getting snipped. He stays on the bus, though, and makes himself useful by lugging bags around. Did that really happen? Possibly. Either way, it's a good story.
TV Guide Rating: 4.5/5
Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese premieres Wednesday, June 12 on Netflix.