Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story, review: Martin Scorsese’s moving portrayal of Dylan in the Seventies

In 1975, Bob Dylan gathered a troupe of musicians and embarked on a tour of small venues across North America. The move, as history remembers it, was financially unsound but creatively brilliant. This unusual, whimsical slice of Dylan’s career is brought to life in Martin Scorsese’s Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story, an invaluable addition to the pantheon of Dylan films – and an eccentric sibling to Scorsese’s 2005 documentary No Direction Home, in which he traced the earlier life of the artist.

Where No Direction Home was a level-headed, informative chronicle of Dylan’s rise to fame from his move to New York in 1961 to his temporary retirement from touring in 1966, Rolling Thunder Revue is a fanciful, colourful movie that aims to transport its audience to a packed concert venue while Dylan belts out iconic tunes such as “Hurricane”. Painting a portrait of Dylan is also to paint a picture of America in that same period – and the America we find at the beginning of Rolling Thunder Revue, fresh off the Watergate scandal and Richard Nixon’s resignation, is certainly struggling to feel patriotic. Enter Dylan and his musicians, some of them internationally famous (Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Roger McGuinn), some less so (violinist Scarlet Rivera, an absolute scene-stealer). Together they deliver what feels like a manifesto of sorts, or at least a message of hope: a timely demonstration that art is valuable, especially in troubled times, and that beauty can be birthed out of mayhem.

Rolling Thunder Revue, which has been billed as “part documentary, part concert film, part fever dream”, rests in large part on beautifully restored archive footage, as well as on contemporary interviews with some of the main players, including Dylan and Baez. There are so many things to like that it’s hard to know where to begin. The archive footage is at times so touching, it seems almost too good to be true (see: an eerie clip of Dylan and Allen Ginsberg playing music at Jack Kerouac’s grave). You ache thinking some of it (Patti Smith in full poetic trance at an open mic in 1975) could have been lost if not for a painstaking restoration process.

Then come, of course, the concert tapes: the Rolling Thunder Revue was probably Dylan’s most theatrical tour, with a trademark aesthetic dominated by Dylan’s whiteface make-up, wide-brimmed hat adorned with flowers, and the occasional masks (“We didn’t have enough masks on that tour,” says present-day Dylan ruefully).

Scorsese devotes ample time to the musicians on stage with long, uninterrupted concert sequences. The camera lingers for dramatic close-ups of Dylan’s face, sweat beading through his make-up, eye-liner running, an air of fierce determination as he revisits – in typical Dylan fashion – classics such as “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”. For younger Dylan fans, who have only ever seen him performing live in his current understated fashion (back-to-back songs, no talking in between tunes), it’s nothing short of mesmerising to see him putting on one hell of a show, smearing make-up on his face as he gets ready to meet his audience, revelling in the creative process of it all, even driving his own tour bus (a metaphorical move if there ever was one).

Which brings us to the interviews. Dylan is such a cipher that it’s hard (if not practically impossible) to get a reading on him most of the time. His own film inspired by the Rolling Thunder Revue tour, the 1978 Renaldo and Clara, was enigmatic to say the least. But in front of Scorsese’s camera, Dylan, now 78, is strikingly candid. When he struggles to summarise what the Rolling Thunder Revue was really about, he laughs at himself and admits he has no idea, all the while dispensing pearls of wisdom only he can pull off (“It happened so long ago I wasn’t even born,” he says of the tour he orchestrated with such apparent purpose.) He goes on to recall specific details about the revue and the people who brought it to life, sharing this laugh-out-loud funny jab at a reporter assigned to cover the tour: “He thought he was Hunter S Thompson just because he worked for Rolling Stone.”

Bob Dylan and Joan Baez duet during the Rolling Thunder Revue tour (Ken Regan)
Bob Dylan and Joan Baez duet during the Rolling Thunder Revue tour (Ken Regan)

Hopelessly romantic viewers will obsess over what Dylan and Baez have to say about each other – as well as an archive clip in which they discuss their respective marriages to other people. Nowadays, Dylan and Baez readily praise each other – “Joan Baez and I could sing together in our sleep,” muses Dylan, while Baez assures that everything is forgiven when she sees him sing. The film provides the most insightful take on their relationship, and it’s surprisingly heartwarming to feel as though after all these years, everything is finally OK.

The movie goes slightly wrong, however, in its attempt to combine facts and fiction. The whole tale is so whimsical that it’s hard to tell where reality ends and where the “fever dream” begins. Let’s just say that if something seems too outlandish to be true, then it probably isn’t. It certainly makes sense to introduce an element of fantasy in this retelling of a brilliant circus show of a tour, but it left me – a Dylan superfan – slightly confused and disappointed.

Still, this immersion in one of the most creative, and – though it may sound paradoxical – authentic moments in Dylan’s work is a genuine treat. The film does a brilliant job at painting the Rolling Thunder Revue, which on the surface could seem like an isolated, wonderfully weird bubble in Dylan’s career, as a return to his roots. The Greenwich folk scene presides over every moment. Dylan delivers the ultimate protest song, “Hurricane”, and campaigns against the wrongful conviction of boxer Rubin “Hurricane“ Carter. There was always a feeling that the story of Dylan’s Sixties self ended rather abruptly, with a reported motorcycle accident in 1966. It’s a beautiful thing to see three of his identities – the Sixties folk prodigy, the Seventies rock star and his contemporary self – come together at once.

Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story is out on 12 June on Netflix and in select cinemas