In July 1976, the United States of America celebrated its bicentennial: 200 years after George Washington and the remaining founding fathers declared independence from the British, the country went into flag-waving overdrive. In the opening minutes of Netflix’s Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story, we see an event in New York City take place under the looming shadow of the World Trade Centre. It was a national coming-together to recapture the pride of a nation after Vietnam, Watergate and Nixon.
In the year prior to this, Bob Dylan was doing the same. Throughout 1975 and 1976, Dylan canvassed the States for his most mythical live tour, Rolling Thunder Revue. For it, Dylan brought a ragtag bunch of creatives, journalists and pals along for the ride in a cramped campervan. The charming poet and activist, Allen Ginsberg, acts as the film’s unofficial narrator via archive footage.
Understated as always, Dylan spurned the big cities and favoured town halls in the heartland of the country for his tour – he wanted to connect with the young and disenfranchised away from the big cities. His live sets consisted of electrifying versions of his folk material from the ‘60s and live debuts of songs that would go on to become 1976’s mid-period highlight ‘Desire’. Those who arrived to hear cuts from the equally revered 1975 album ‘Blood On The Tracks’ would be sorely disappointed.
This would only be Dylan’s second tour since a motorcycle accident in 1966, one that turned him into a studio recluse. But who was Dylan to capture the civil unrest of the ‘70s? The folk-wunderkind was considered to have lost his edge before his comeback album ‘Blood On The Tracks’, and the nation had changed immensely since his songs soundtracked the uprisings of the ’60s. The Vietnam War was coming to a close in embarrassing circumstances as US troops were now withdrawing with their tails between their legs. Meanwhile, President Nixon was embroiled in the Watergate Scandal from 1972 and had resigned two years later. During his reclusive period, Dylan largely spurned protest songs, despite the early-’70s being ripe for anger and disobedience.
Good intentions, then, but the Rolling Thunder Revue, ended up being a big nothing. Dylan admits so in the opening minutes of this film. “I’m trying to get to the core of what this Rolling Thunder thing is all about,” he says in a new interview, “I don’t have a clue because it’s about nothing!” It was a chaotic, lucid time and while Dylan was unable to heal the nation’s wounds, he was at his creative peak and giving electrifying live performances. Most importantly, he looks like he’s having a laugh, for once.
Chaos is no doubt why Martin Scorsese was drawn to this era in Dylan’s career, his second documentary film about the icon. Described as a “part documentary, part-concert film and part-fever dream”, Rolling Thunder Revue is a freewheelin’ two-hour trip that’s as bonkers as the tour itself and as frantic as Scorsese’s most hectic films (Goodfellas, Casino). There’s tribal face-painting, debauched house parties, lucid live shows and a fair few cameos (Patti Smith, Joni Mitchell, and – yep –Sharon Stone). Some trip, man.
To recreate that carnivalesque spirit, Scorsese utilises intimate behind-the-scenes shots, barnstormin’ performance footage and new interviews with key players like Dylan, filmmaker Martin Von Haselberg and assorted band members – all of which seem to find revisiting the tour more painful and tiresome than pulling teeth. By doing so, Scorsese has given us an immersive and unparalleled insight into the era that solidified his legacy. You’ll feel like one of the many hanger-ons who latched on for the ride.
Highlights include a thundering performance of ‘Desire’ cut ‘Isis’ and eye-boggling versions of ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’ and ‘It Ain’t Me Babe’. Meanwhile the well-worn origin story ‘Hurricane’, one of Dylan’s most masterful character-led songs, remains fresh due to a delightfully vibrant interview with boxer Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter, the aggrieved party at the middle of it.
The film and its accompanying 14-disc live album provide another yet treasure trove for Dylan acolytes to dive into, categorise and obsess over. For casuals, there’s less to sink your teeth – its basically a plotless film dominated loosely by chronology – but remains a priceless insight into this incarnation of the mysterious vagabond.
Towards the end of the movie, Ginsburg concludes that the tour was a ‘failure’ of sorts. “We started out trying to recover America”, he says in a to-camera monologue, but admits that instead, “we discovered a certain amount of truths about ourselves.” Who knew such a fiasco could be such fun?
Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese is on Netflix now