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REVIEW: Scorsese’s study of Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue a visual, sonic and social powerhouse

Over two separate legs in 1975 and 1976, with his Desire album released in between, singer/songwriter Bob Dylan assembled a ragtag troupe of musicians to embark on what has become one of the most remarkable tours ever undertaken.

It was called the Rolling Thunder Revue, and its legacy remains poignant thanks to this documentary from directorial exemplar Martin Scorsese.

Author Clinton Heylin wrote of the tour: “The Rolling Thunder Revue shows remain some of the finest music Dylan ever made with a live band.”

In essence, Dylan assembled an eclectic band of bohemians to hit the road to perform at small halls and theatres in small towns across the U.S., despite the fact that he could fill large arenas.

Dylan said he wanted to “play for the people” and get back to more intimate shows and fortunately, he had the foresight to record the tour on film.

Dylan said he wanted to “play for the people” and get back to more intimate shows and fortunately, he had the foresight to record the tour on film.

Now, in 2019, the much-anticipated footage has been unearthed, presented in a new documentary directed by the acclaimed Martin Scorsese.

There are five important things about this documentary:

  1. The threads of Bob Dylan are ‘untwined’. We get to see the person behind the mask, a little.
  2. The music, the songs and the performances are just glorious.
  3. It showcases a time, unique in western humanity’s evolution, and preserves it well.
  4. The very fact that it has been made.
  5. The words Dylan speaks when he alights from a red car sometime just after six minutes in. Those words alone are reason enough to watch this documentary, a Netflix film.

The times were very different from now in some ways. And maybe not so different in others. Parts of America were desolate of hope. Small-town America, once both the engine- room and the heartbeat of the mighty U.S.A., was socially, economically and morally shattered.

The Americans had been chased out of Vietnam. The humiliation for the country, forged with the realisation that so many lives had been sacrificed with such foreseeable futility, broke the back of the nation.

It is in this context that Dylan set about launching the Rolling Thunder Revue, a meandering and legendary tour of the States, to reach them and to unite them.

The tour was named after native Chief Rolling Thunder. It was like a cross between a circus and a carnival. Fun, chaotic and crazy but serious; justice was at its core.

It was an attempt, in poet Allen Ginsberg’s words, to “recover America”.

The documentary collages a series of glimpses, spliced with commentary from luminaries such as Joan Baez, beat poet Allen Ginsberg, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Joni Mitchell, The Byrds’ Roger McGuinn, Boxer Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter, actress Sharon Stone and Dylan himself.

It is rare that the person behind the riddle behind the enigma that is Bob Dylan surfaces – but he does here. The viewer gets to see both his extraordinary magic and his very ordinary humanity. For such a god-like figure, this is a revelation.

The songs, the older ones like Tambourine Man, A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall, Simple Twist Of Fate, When I Paint My Masterpiece, I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine, I Shall Be Released (a duet with Joan Baez), Just Like A Woman, The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll and Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door (with new lyrics) are delivered with fire and passion, something rarely seen in Dylan’s performances today.

He is electric and compelling. Dylan’s album at the time was, of course, the landmark Desire. One More Cup Of Coffee (which came to Dylan in a dream), Isis, Oh, Sister and the infamous Hurricane all get an airing here. Isis, in particular, is delivered with venom and is a wonderful highlight.

On November 2, 1975, Dylan decided to play the town of Lowell, the birthplace of seminal writer Jack Kerouac. Dylan, Ginsberg and some others visit Kerouac’s gravesite and honour his art in travelling the “road of life”.

And there’s even a reference to Kiss who, some say, influenced Dylan in a way. Magnetic violinist Scarlett Revera, who was a significant member of the Revue, was also Gene Simmons’ (from Kiss) girlfriend.

Apparently, she took Dylan to see Kiss one night and, from it, Dylan got the idea to wear white face paint on stage at many of the Rolling Thunder shows.
Guitarist Mick Ronson, David Bowie’s guitarist, makes an appearance on Hard Rain, his solo wailing, almost incongruent to the folky racket emanating from the stage.

With a cast of such esteemed musicians and eccentric characters, and the altruistic goal behind the tour…the Rolling Thunder Revue is a visual and sonic testament to the times.

And there’s history too.

Two years earlier, Dylan had done a massive tour with The Band who were originally The Hawks, the backing band for the iconic Ronnie Hawkins. Hawkins shares some observations here, as Dylan does about him – “he looked like a shitkicker but spoke with the wisdom of a sage”.

And Patti Smith also makes a cameo, regaling Dylan with some left-of-centre tale that reminds you of the drugs that were around in the mid-seventies.
And then there’s a touching appearance by Rubin Carter, the boxer unjustly incarcerated and the subject of Hurricane, the wildly evocative tale and the single from the Desire album. Carter tells of the impact of Dylan’s protest on his life, of how it propelled him to maintain his struggle for freedom, uplifted and inspired by Dylan “giving people the truth”.

With a cast of such esteemed musicians and eccentric characters, and the altruistic goal behind the tour, combined with the shambolic chaos of being on the road to realising Dylan’s vision, the Rolling Thunder Revue is a visual and sonic testament to the times.

There’s meditation, enlightenment, urgent interviews, obfuscation (on Dylan’s part), belief, commitment, electricity, disbelief, risk, confrontation, disappointment, elation, and musical nirvana, with Dylan fierce and entrancing. You get more than just a glimpse of why he was/is such a powerful social commentator, incisive and entirely capable of inspiring change.

Dylan himself admits that the tour was not successful in terms of profit, but as an adventure, yes. And what a bold, spellbinding and tumultuous adventure it was.
And the words Dylan speaks just after six minutes in, as he jumps out of a bright red car. They define us. All of us. In two lines. This is a microscope focused on the brilliance of the man.

And his vulnerability.

This documentary reveals and preserves something unique and special.
Thank God, and Martin Scorsese, and Dylan, that it was made.


Running Time :  142 minutes

Release Date :  Now streaming on Netflix

Who is in it: Bob Dylan, Allen Ginsberg, Patti Smith, Joan Baez, Roger McGuinn, Sam Shephard, Sharon Stone.

Written by Newcastle Live

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