June 12, 2019
‘Rolling Thunder Revue’: What to Watch to Prepare For Martin Scorsese’s New Bob Dylan Documentary
Decades in the making, the release of Martin Scorsese’s Rolling Thunder Revue is cause for celebration. This long anticipated look at Bob Dylan’s 1975 tour is being released in select theatres and on Netflix, documenting the tour of the East Coast where the venerable entertainer played smaller venues and created a kind of Gypsy-themed, grass-roots concert jaunt, has long been considered legendary by Dylanologists of all stripes.
For casual fans or neophytes, however, this is a highly confusing place to start out. Rolling Thunder was a kind of anti-tour, a direct reaction to the stadium shows that Bob performed with the Band the year before. In these massive shows he refocused many of his songs for the rock stadium crowd, embodying the spirit of that age when the shows began to overwhelm the performers. These were his first live performances since 1966, where during that period with the members of the Band (then known as The Hawks) Dylan stormed the U.S., Canada and Europe, with sets that began with acoustic familiarity and then slammed with electrified presence, prompting one patron to famously shout “Judas!”at the blasphemic sounds emitting from a once deified “protest singer”.
In other words, Rolling Thunder was a show that was a reaction to another show that was a reaction to another series of events that saw Dylan rise from the coffee houses of Greenwich Village to become the spokesperson for a generation. Even his musical arrangements during Rolling Thunder were radical departures from what came before that only lived during this era, making them almost unrecognizable from their origins. In the same way that appreciating a cover song is often heightened by knowing what it was based upon, so do does much of the Rolling Thunder experience flourish the more one apprehends just what Dylan and his posse are riffing on.
That’s a lot of baggage to take in, and on first blush it may be hard to see what the big deal is. To help you prepare, here are some films that will help contextualize Rolling Thunder Revue and gain an even deeper appreciation for the film and its subjects. Yes, we’re suggesting some homework before diving in, but be sated in knowing these are some of the greatest works of non-fiction ever made, so this will hardly be a slog.
No Direction Home
In many ways, Scorsese’s blistering, brilliant 2005 documentary is the definitive look at Dylan and his rise to fame. Yet beyond the mercurial ramblings of Mr. Zimmerman and exceptional clips, the true star is actually Joan Baez, a giant in her own right who better than anyone has a firm grasp on both the majesty and messiness of that era.
Watching Joan is a revelation if only to see someone perfectly at ease with their own faults and accomplishments, a sign of a completely settled human being who lived through the mayhem of that period and lived to tell the tale. The interviews are deep and personal, with Dylan as introspective but still living the myth of the wandering minstrel, while Baez in a few short words can cut to the quick and burst the balloons of bombast. You can tell why he adored her, you can see how he betrayed her, and you can wonder at how these two ever managed to be in a room without either killing each other or making passionate love.
With its more straight forward timeline, you get a strong sense of the pre-motorcyle accident Dylan, a man who single handedly changed the words of popular music through a constant period of reinvention.
The Last Waltz
The story is that Scorsese abandoned his duties on the faltering DeNiro/Manelli musical drama New York, New York to shoot the final show of The Band. Given the mountains of cocaine at hand, this remarkable show is somehow made coherent by slurry interviews and wild stage theatrics that helped shape the careers and tastes of these remarkable musicians. Last Waltz was meant to be somewhat nostalgic, the culmination of a certain era. Ronnie Hawkins, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Neils Diamond and Young join this ultimate backing ground to show off their stuff that helped make them legendary. The closer was Dylan, who was to go waltzing without his former backing musicians on his neverending tour.
The ties to the Band are profound, as when Dylan called live gigs quits, the result was settling in upstate New York and changing music history once again. These resulting “Basement Tapes” generated albums worth of material for both Bob and the Band, and helped set the stage for decades of tunes to come. Between 1967 and 1976 this swampy Americana took hold, while at this finale show the arrangements had become bigger and with more pomp and circumstance, but showcase the same Bob that was yearning with his Rolling Thunder shows to transcend once again audience expectation along with the constraints and expectations his superstardom generated.
Dont Look Back
D.A. Pennebaker’s 1967 apostrophe-less film is one of the most important documentaries of all time about one of the most important musical events of all time. The 1965 tour of England saw Dylan wrestle with audiences who wanted him to remain adhering to their expectations, boxing him in as an acoustic folk singer and finding the electric performances to be not only boorish but politically destructive. With its wandering gaze the film gives a sense of the world floating around Dylan, the poet churning out sheet after sheet of lyrics while the tumult takes place in front of him. Baez, Bob Neuwirth and especially Allen Ginsberg play major roles here, people who by the mid-1970s would continue to play significantly into the events that Rolling Thunder captures.
Murray Lerner’s look at Newport shows from 1963 to 1965 are the true prequel to all that takes place during Rolling Thunder’s shows (Scorsese’s No Direction Home borrows lots from this and Pennebaker’s doc). These intimate performances, culminating in the famous confrontation over Dylan’s performance with the electrified Butterfield Blues Band, lay the foundation for what Dont Look Back would document and The Last Waltz would prove to be indelible. Again, Baez shines, and you see here how she gently presents her young discovery Dylan, inculcating him into the Folk elite, only to witness the year later him going against yet another orthodoxy he was determined to overcome.
Renaldo and Clara
Running just under four hours and nearly impossible to find a legit copy of (the most widely circulated DVDs are sourced from European videos taped off television), Renaldo and Clara is Dylan’s own rumination on the Rolling Thunder experience. Far more unwieldy than Scorcese’s journey, this strange and rambling piece provides some further contextualization to the period, including tacitly how Marcel Carné’s Children of Paradise helped shape some of the tour’s aesthetic flourishes. There’s little in the way of explanation here, but it does give a sense of the indulgence of the age that drove much of the tour’s most frustrating and compelling moments. As strange as Scorsese’s Rolling Thunder doc proves to me, it’s nowhere near as lunatic as Dylan’s own directorial experimentation.
I’m Not There
We’ve had plenty of musical biopics – some satisfying, some spurious – but none quite like Todd Haynes’ lyrical, loopy. It does something truly spectacular when it makes a film not about a single artist but about the manifold, fragmented mythologies that surround Dylan, resulted in a narrative almost as complicated and conflicted as its subject. In many ways, what we know of the singer is entirely the myth made by a Jew from Northern Minnesota that saw himself as a ragged, ramblin’ troubadour riding the rails and following the path of Woody Guthrie, and the schizophrenic conceit of this film does wonders to show these various facets. This film, like Rolling Thunder, makes a lot more sense if you know what it’s riffing on, making it far deeper than just a smattering of oddities and instead one of the deepest, most loving tributes to a complicated artist ever set to film.
This might be the weirdest thing to add on, but Robert Altman and Gary Trudeau’s mockumentary about a presidential candidate directly correlates with Scorsese’s Rolling Thunder, creating a political character entirely believable that itself undercuts the “talking head” style of documentaries. Through the films farce deeper truths are revealed, and the same puckish profundity can be seen in both Scorsese’s craft and Dylan’s experience during the ’75 tour, mixing somber and silly in equal measure with the end result being something that continues to reverberate generations onward.
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