Martin Scorsese’s Brilliant if Baffling Tribute to Bob Dylan
Who is the real Bob Dylan?
The Rolling Thunder Revue was a mostly forgotten piece of music history. Only a handful of music aficionados cared to acknowledge its cultural significance— Bob Dylan leading a ragtag, rollicking and renowned troupe of musicians on a road tour across the American heartland. The star-studded ensemble included the likes of Joan Baez, Allen Ginsberg, Joni Mitchell, Roger McGuinn, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Bob Neuwirth to name a few. Playing a total of 57 shows, the tour began in October ‘75 and concluded in May ‘76.
The truth is that even if most of us didn’t know it—the Rolling Thunder Revue was a watershed moment for both the music industry and for the counterculture at large. When asked about the origins of the tour, beat poet Ginsberg sagely replies, “We started out trying to recover America.”
When I first heard that Martin Scorsese was planning to resurrect the specter of Dylan’s long lost tour in the guise of an official Netflix release, I was thrilled albeit more than a bit surprised. An obscure film of sorts entitled Renaldo & Clara, written by Dylan himself along with playwright Sam Shepherd, and featuring footage from the Rolling Thunder tour had been released eons ago. However, that film had been so brutally panned that it straightaway slipped through the cracks of oblivion without so much as a whimper. Bootlegged copies are available for the interested few, floating about in the online ether.
It’s a weird film to say the least— a cinematic conundrum starring Dylan in the avatar of a John Wayne-sque figure coupled with Baez playing a pliable prostitute. Unsurprisingly, in spite of Dylan’s gargantuan stature as an elder statesman of rock, Renaldo & Clara was consigned to the dustbin of pop culture. Now Scorcese has deigned to rummage through all those reams of footage to serve up his take on that 1970s road odyssey across America, aptly calling this new film, “Rolling Thunder Revue, a Bob Dylan story.”
In a nod to Dylan’s commedia dell’arte inspiration for the actual tour, the film opens with a strange montage of grainy, black-and-white scenes drawn from an oddball mix of vaudeville acts. Soon thereafter, we cut to Dylan in white face paint performing his classic “Mr. Tambourine Man” accompanied with a droning monologue by Richard Nixon. And then we see his Bob-ness, Dylan in the present day, looking like a bedraggled emperor. When asked about the Rolling Thunder Revue, he croaks, rather truthfully for a change, “I don’t have a clue because it’s about nothing. It’s just something that happened 40 years ago.”
Dylan is a modern enigma— folksinger, rock star, troubadour, poet, artist, salesman, rebel, conformist, genius, plagiarist and Nobel laureate. An ingenious chameleon, Dylan has adorned a myriad ruse of guises over his lengthy career in the searing limelight. Adored and criticized in equal parts, he’s always had a knack for evolving, often ahead of the times he’s lived in. “I’m smart enough to know, I’ll never understand him,” says Baez about her former flame. It’s only fitting then that this documentary is as mystically cryptic as the inimitable subject it portrays. In fact, Scorsese flashes a title for a few seconds at the beginning of the film— “Conjuring Bob Dylan”— And that’s exactly what he does. This film is part truth and part fiction, just like Dylan himself.
I’d wager that Scorsese is a big fan of Bob, like many of us. He’s already directed one film on Dylan for the American Masters series on PBS. That film— “No Direction Home” was a comprehensive if forgettable take on Dylan’s life. It somehow just didn’t quite manage to capture the dynamism of Dylan or his legacy. Fortunately, Scorsese eked out the time from his big-budget roster of Hollywood flicks to revisit Dylan once again. And, this time around, he’s managed to go far beyond his prior attempt at peeling away the deliciously murky layers of the Dylan persona.
The credit doesn’t only go to Scorcese though. A lot of the archival footage used in the film is of a riveting, powerful and never-before-seen variety. A documentarian by the name of Stefan Van Dorp shot the majority of this footage. Funding all the expenses for the behind-the-scenes filming himself, Van Dorp succeeded in capturing the frenzy of the Rolling Thunder Revue for posterity. Or is that so? Actually Van Dorp is a creation of Scorsese. In truth, he’s Bette Midler’s husband, Martin Von Haselberg. The film blends reality and fantasy so intricately that the truth doesn’t really matter anymore.
There’s plenty of magic here, real or not; many of the scenes that mesmerize were originally intended as nothing more than B-roll shot at random. For instance, early on in the film we’re presented with the mysterious and rattling performance of a young Patti Smith. She recites a hip poem about some archer in love before launching into her song. This scene was shot at Gerde’s folk city in New York as a precursor to the tour. Dylan did invite Smith to join the Rolling Thunder Revue, but as the story goes, she politely declined. Apparently, as the newly crowned queen of punk, she had more than a few reservations about joining a folk cum country musical mélange.
Allen Ginsberg is another figure that shines. America’s irreverent son, Ginsberg went on to become a leading luminary of the beat movement with his controversial poem “Howl”. Along with Jack Kerouac, he was a big inspiration to the young and yet-undiscovered Dylan. Ginsberg is glorious in the film— his fiery, provocative and brilliant poetry providing the perfect accompaniment to Dylan’s music.
“Seeing Ginsberg was like going to see the Oracle of Delphi. He was his own kind of king,” narrates Dylan. In a poignant scene, both Dylan and Ginsberg are seen visiting Kerouac’s grave, ostensibly paying homage to the late and great beat prototype. The mutual affection and reverence between the two artistic giants is palpable. “Allen’s yearning was to be Bob, or to have Bob love him more,” recalls Ginsberg’s protégé and fellow poet, Anne Waldman.
Unbelievably, Ginsberg’s talents were not that much in demand during the tour. Ronee Blakely, one of the performers in Dylan’s entourage mentions that his poetry performance was eventually cut from the show. In fact, she goes on to shockingly state that Ginsberg and his longtime boyfriend Peter Orlovsky became baggage handlers during the later leg of the tour. It’s a funny if cringe worthy idea to think of Ginsberg, arguably one of the greatest poets of the 20th century— doubling up as a porter.
Joni Mitchell is another highlight of the film. Apparently, after attending a show in Connecticut, she was so captivated that she ended up staying for the rest of the tour. Although Mitchell later described her involvement as, “the worst career move I could make”, she did pen one of her best songs “Coyote” thanks to her participation.
Rumor has it that the song is about her brief if charged affair with Sam Shepherd, who was also traveling in the Rolling Thunder retinue. A haunting sequence of Mitchell performing an early version of the song, backed by both Dylan and Roger McGuinn, is worthy of note. Mitchell has derided Dylan as a “plagiarist” and a “fake” in recent years; but they do seem to share a mutual respect and a real camaraderie, at least during the time of this tour.
Joan Baez is the epitome of elegance. Dylan’s former flame adds more than a sparkle of fire to the documentary thanks to a plethora of archival footage tastefully sprinkled with up-to-date interviews. I was fortunate enough to have met Miss Baez when I was an 18-year old undergrad, living in New York City. She was being honored at this grand gala— the Woody Guthrie Awards, and I’d gone along in starry-eyed wonder hoping to meet her. By a simple twist of fate, the organizers at the event thought I was from the Washington Post instead of my local college newspaper, the Washington Square News.
Not one to harp on minor details, I didn’t really bother correcting the misunderstanding. Well suffice to say, I got exclusive access to Baez for all the time that I could’ve wished for. I spoke to her at length about a range of topics— music & politics, her days with Martin Luther King Jr., her undying commitment to social change, the heady days of the Sixties, and the trials of today. However, the one topic that I made sure to steer clear of was her tumultuous love affair with Dylan.
To be honest, I was dying to ask her about it, but I’d heard that she was a more than a bit touchy on that topic. One can’t blame her: they’d been in a relationship a lifetime ago, somewhere between 1962-65 to be precise. When asked if she had any apprehensions about joining the tour, Baez responds, “I’d already experienced Dylan, and I knew how much fun that could be… or not.”
The scenes of Dylan and Baez together, performing or just fooling around, are some of the film’s most memorable parts. “When I first met her, it seemed like she’d come down to earth from a meteorite. And she’s never changed,” reminisces Dylan in a rare moment of admiration. During a performance of “I Shall be Released”, an audience member yells out loud, “What a lovely couple!” Baez laughs before melodically intoning into the microphone, “Don’t make myths… a couple of what?” I saw Baez again during her “Fare Thee Well” tour in Paris last summer, and she still seems like she’s come down to earth from a meteorite.
Scorcese undoubtedly does make the most of this colorful and eclectic cast of characters while keeping the focus on Dylan throughout. The freewheeling behind-the-scenes look at the tour blends effortlessly with archival newsreel footage amid modern day interviews. The editing is frenetic and chaotic, and yet it feels real and authentic. The documentary appears to be telling the story from Dylan’s perspective. And the tools of the cinematic language— editing, soundtrack or cinematography underscore this idea, whether intended or not. The artistic license that Scorsese employs— the creation of Van Dorp, the inclusion of Sharon Stone in the film when she wasn’t a part of the tour, and the actor Michael Murphy playing a Dylan-loving politician— all contribute to a film that feels more like a waking dream.
Impressively, in a roundabout way this film even transcends the critically acclaimed “Don’t Look Back”, DA Pennebaker’s cinema verité take on Dylan’s 1965 tour of England. Scorcese is able to actually penetrate through Dylan’s ever-changing aura in order to give us a tiny peek at what he’s really all about. A famous recluse, this is the first extensive interview that Dylan’s agreed to do in years.
This is no mean feat: I once attended a Dylan concert on the upper-west side of New York, and my camera was confiscated as a result. As soon as I’d clicked a blurry photo of his Bob-ness, a burly security guard turned up screaming, “If you take a picture of Mr. Bob, it belongs to Mr. Bob.” Well, Scorcese has made up for that lost photograph of mine by painting a truly compelling portrait of Dylan. The “Rolling Thunder Revue, a Bob Dylan Story” is an enchanting, whimsical and unforgettable portrait of one of the greatest artists of our time.
However, even after seeing this film, I’m still left wondering to myself: Who is the real Bob Dylan? I guess the answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind…