Rolling Thunder Revue is the rare rock movie with an eye for absurdity.
Martin Scorsese has assembled for Netflix what looks like a Bob Dylan concert documentary, Rolling Thunder Revue. Under the surface, though, it’s more of a comic conspiracy: With a glorious deadpan worthy of This Is Spinal Tap, which was itself a spoof of a Scorsese film featuring Dylan, Dylan and Scorsese have made a rock movie that lampoons the shaman-troubadours of rock.
Bob Dylan tired of being Bob Dylan by the mid-70s, when he left his kook-besieged home in Woodstock, New York, and fled to Malibu. In recent years, he’s been goofing on his own legend, starring in Victoria’s Secret commercials, croaking out bad covers of Frank Sinatra songs, then delivering a Nobel Prize lecture containing thoughts on Moby-Dick that he apparently lifted from SparkNotes.
The new work is billed as Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese. Story, not documentary. The film isn’t to be taken at face value. At least two characters in this yarn about Dylan’s 1975–76 concert tour are fictional, one of them offering yarns about Jimmy Carter. Then again, was Carter real? Did he actually say, “I grew up as a landowner’s son. But I don’t think I ever realized the proper interrelationship between the landowner and those who worked on a farm until I heard Dylan’s record, ‘I Ain’t Gonna Work on Maggie’s Farm No More.’”? [sic]
Well, yes. Yes he did, in 1974. Wow: This was a trippy time. The mid-70s were far out, man. Never, before or since, in any era, ever, have human beings draped themselves in such hideous clothing. Only images actually taken in the period can properly convey the horror; whenever filmmakers (such as Scorsese) make something set in the mid-70s, they have to tone down the clothes, otherwise the costumes will devour the movie.
The clothes were part and parcel of the hungover mid-70s, a period that looks now like a gaudy muddle, a filthy rainbow. Jimmy Carter, the saint of the South, heralded a fresh start as America was gearing up for a massive spiritual renewal, the Bicentennial. The culture seems to have utterly forgotten this moment. Maybe the only film that gets it is Robert Altman’s 1975 piece, Nashville.
Rolling Thunder Revue is a spiritual companion to Altman’s film (and carries an extended Altman homage). Dylan seeks to resurface an American tradition of overt raffishness, of what one participant calls “con-man carny medicine shows.” Center stage, Dylan sports a huge hat with flowers and a scarf down to his knees. On his face he’s got eyeliner and a randomly applied blob of whiteface. Sometimes Dylan wears a mask. “When someone’s wearing a mask he’s gonna tell you the truth,” Dylan reasons. Either way, he looks ridiculous bordering on demented. The camera crews gleefully exaggerate the effect by shoving the lens right in Dylan’s chops, for long, dermatologically fixated closeups. It’s mesmerizing. Scorsese includes boisterous roadhouse-style takes of “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” and songs from the period such as “Hurricane” and “Isis.”
The movie is aimed strictly at those already fascinated with Dylan (if you’re not in this group, don’t bother). Dylan is notably unfascinated with himself, though. He dismisses the notionally legendary Rolling Thunder tour (which wasn’t named after the code name for Nixon’s bombing of North Vietnam) as “just something that happened 40 years ago. I don’t remember a thing about it.” Beat. “It happened so long ago I wasn’t even born.” He tries to get fancy in describing what the tour was about, then admits what he’s saying is “bulls***.”
The footage was originally collected by the documentarian “Stefan van Dorp,” a Dutch filmmaker who is ridiculous enough to be a fictional creation and, as it turns out, is. “Van Dorp” brags that he gave the idea to Dylan to hold his cigarette between his middle and ring fingers: “That was me.” A guitarist on the tour, Mick Ronson, is asked for his thoughts about Dylan but doesn’t have many: “He never talked to me.” Sharon Stone, then a knockout of 17 or 18, says when she asked for an autograph, she was promptly invited to join the tour. “And do what?” she asked, incredulous. Soon she found herself ironing for Joan Baez, who was also on the tour. Or so she says. Was she even on that tour? If she was, one doubts she was brought along to iron clothes. She says Dylan took her aside and said, “I wrote a song for you.” Then he played “Just Like a Woman.” She cried at the line, “She makes love just like a woman.” It fell to guitarist T-Bone Burnett to tell the girl the song had been written ten years earlier.
Even funnier is a random moment of strange disputation between Baez and Dylan on the tour. They were longtime lovers. She used to feed him salad and red wine as he “wrote like a ticker tape,” she says. They sing “I Shall Be Released,” then contemplate what went wrong. “It really displeases me that you went off and got married,” he tells her. She considers this information calmly, then replies, “You went off and got married first, and didn’t tell me.” Oh.
All of this is exquisitely deadpan, as is Dylan’s description of his bandmates. One looked like “a gladiator in some nondescript Roman arena.” Of his violinist, the scary-sexy Scarlet Rivera, he says, “She wore a sword everywhere she went, that girl.” (I don’t see a sword in the film.) His description of what she brought with her on tour is like a Spinal Tap spoof of Stevie Nicks — all kinds of strange objects including candelabras, plural. Who brings multiple candelabras on a rock tour? “She had a snake! Just many things in a trunk.” A scene in which Dylan and Allen Ginsberg somehow find themselves performing for a group of ladies playing mahjong recalls Spinal Tap sharing the bill with a puppet show. Even a seemingly no-nonsense chauffeur picks up on the Aquarian gibberish: “You not only could feel the vibes, you could also see them.”
Did people once talk like this? Yes, they did. Vapidity was as endemic as litter. It’s impossible to tell when people are being ridiculous intentionally. Often I was reminded of the scene in Annie Hall in which the rock journalist tells Alvy Singer, of the latest fake fakir or sham shaman, “He’s got millions of followers who would crawl all the way across the world just to touch the hem of his garment.” “Really?” says Alvy. “Must be a tremendous hem.”
When, in Spinal Tap, Rob Reiner introduced himself as the Scorsese-like “Marty Di Bergi” and set out to spoof Scorsese’s The Last Waltz, a film in which Dylan played an important part, Scorsese and Dylan must have laughed louder than anyone, having lived amid the absurdity. The Rolling Thunder footage was originally collected for a spectacularly pretentious four-hour film Dylan directed (and co-wrote with Sam Shepard) called Renaldo and Clara. Film Threat hailed it as “the very, very, very worst thing ever made.” In other words, there was comedy gold here. It took someone with the impeccable comic sense of Martin Scorsese to dig it up.