How do you go about telling a myth? Take a nod from Martin Scorsese’s ‘Rolling Thunder Revue Tour: A Bob Dylan Story.’
Plymouth, Massachusetts. A place known for two things: Pilgrims and the fabled Rock, whose histories are closer to myth than brutal truth.
Not much has happened in Plymouth since the Mayflower hoisted its sails on Cape Cod Bay. I’ve been there once, and if any sense of adventure once swooped about like the nearby offshore winds, it has since wriggled its way out of the township and hasn’t felt nostalgic in nearly four centuries. But in the summer of 1975, a modern voyage of musicians—nay, a merry band of gypsies, beatniks, and tagalongs led by a Kubuki-masked troubadour named Bob Dylan—would cruise into this sleepy New England hamlet to wake up some suburban souls, and perhaps their own as well.
It took me 22 years to fall in love with Bob Dylan. But here I am, absolutely enraptured by the myth. And like all great myths, his is impenetrable. So is the purpose behind The Rolling Thunder Revue and Martin Scorsese’s truth-bending “part documentary, part fever dream” about the carnivalesque tour. “I’m trying to get to the core of what this Rolling Thunder thing is all about, and I don’t have a clue because it’s about nothing,” Bob Dylan admits in the film’s first few minutes. “It’s just something that happened 40 years [ago]—and that’s the truth of it.” Like a joint of hashish and tobacco burning in their greyhound tour bus, Phydeaux, what remains of the tour’s legacy, at least according to Dylan, are “ashes.”
Bob Dylan doesn’t have a mile-wide smile. He mostly smirks—a male Mona Lisa, sly and charmingly opaque. Which is why when he says “ashes,” he doesn’t really mean it. Or does he? Come back to me in another forty years, but I have a feeling he is winking at us. Interpreting Dylan—his music, his words, his soul—is a matador-and-bull type of game. We must remember: Scorsese is not delivering us a Bob Dylan documentary, but a Bob Dylan Story—something closer to a reverie than a factual narrative.
When I asked Scorsese about how the myth of Dylan shifted during this tour, he felt that not much in him had changed: “It is Dylan on the same trajectory in a sense. Redefining himself, recreating himself to find not necessarily to fool people, but to find another facet of the artist. Everybody feels that ‘Oh, that is pretentious.’ That’s what he is! He is a great artist!” But right before embarking on the Rolling Thunder Revue tour, Dylan wasn’t moving forward. Following a traumatic motorcycle accident, he made a wrong turn and settled into a marriage on the brink of dilapidation. Secluded up with his kids and wife in a country home in Woodstock, NY, Dylan seemed to have disappeared, and many were worried about his musical genius might do the same. Eight years later, Dylan finally reemerged. But after releasing the critically-panned Self Portrait in 1970, to which the great music critic Griel Marcus said, “What is this shit?,” some were unsure if Dylan had the “stuff” anymore. Although the privilege of hindsight reveals to us that was intentionally disheveled—and this was because its creator in a similar state The album’s uneven flow, quirky production, and self-deprecating tone is a result of Dylan painting himself—or more accurately, the character he plays—asymmetrically. You don’t even need to listen to music to get a sense of this. Just take a look at the album cover, a lopsided self-portrait of Bob Dylan’s sullen face that has the charm of a five-year-old’s attempt at a Picasso art assignment. Dylan is trying to incinerate the “spokesman of a generation” tag that was pinned onto him like a donkey’s tail. Truly, only a man like Dylan, and maybe a few other Greats, could get away with such impulses. Nonetheless, the old Bob Dylan the world once knew was now ashes, and fro those embers would manifest the incandescent, electrically-charged Rolling Thunder Revue.
At the film’s outset, we catch this newly rekindled Bob Dylan performing with swagger at the Bitter End in Lower Manhattan. After the show, he finds himself at the mercy of a rambling Patti Smith, who babbles on about Arthur Rimbaud in unintelligible sentences bursting with non-sequiturs. But it was this fateful encounter that also inspired Dylan to find his own motley of eccentric bohemians. What followed was a legendary gathering of the era’s greatest musicians, titans like Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Scarlet Rivera, Allen Ginsberg, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Bobby Neuwirth, and Bowie-guitarist Mick Ronson. All aboard the Rolling Thunder Revue caravan!
One of the first impressions you’ll get about the tour’s ethos was decidedly populist. Net profit, for once, was not the primary motive here. Blowing in and out of 23 cities like a wisp of Allen Ginsberg’s incense, Dylan and his tribe performed 31 shows at a great financial loss. “It wasn’t a success—not if you measure success in terms of profit,” Dylan said in very Dylanesque fashion. Instead of playing stadium arenas, the band played in local amphitheaters and community centers where concertgoers bought tickets at an impromptu box office—a single fold-out table much of the time. Sometimes, Dylan fans were mere inches away from the mic, squished together, and packed tight like sardines in a can,. The acoustics were often nightmarishly bad too. Without proper technicians, deafening noise careened through these venues, aging the audience’s eardrums a decade or so. But what emerged from that chaos was a profound intimacy rarely achieved. After all, it is hard to imagine that a hugely popular artist today—say someone like Beyonce or Drake—could even choose of their volition to conduct a tour like that, let alone a single concert. Their managers would probably have a heart attack just thinking about a fan being within an arm’s reach of their client for two, three hours.
Another joy of Rolling Thunder Revue is its unexpected obfuscation of truth. Smoke and mirrors are everywhere. A particularly mind-blowing revelation I found out after the premiere was that the filmmaker of the archived tour footage, Stefan van Dorp, was actually played by actor Martin von Hasselberg. Sharon Stone never went on the tour. And Jim Gianopulos wasn’t even involved. Scorsese 3 — Me 0.
The only thing certain in Scorcese’s film is the uncertainty of time and space itself. Like Dylan, Scorsese is trying to create something new, which is no easy task after decades of prolific filmmaking. “Where do you get the inspiration from? Can you still write at the age of 77?,” Scorsese started to riff. “Not necessarily the way you wrote at 21 because you are a different person, but can you still write? Can you still perform? You have to pull it from somewhere—it doesn’t come out of the air.”It didn’t hurt that Scorsese had some stellar footage to work with. Oh, and the sound quality! The rapturous “Isis” and whirling “Hurricane” have never rocked so hard than on movie theater speakers, especially that of the premiere at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall.
There are few musicians that can evoke such a transcendent feeling, but Bob does. Every damn time. When we watch Bob Dylan play—belting, sweating, dancing—his gravity grabs us by the shoulders, yanking us towards the stage. At this moment, we are no longer passive observers, but rather become a part of the performance unfurling before us, a part of its motion and spirit and delight as its gravity surges forth. This is how I felt when I watched Dylan perform, almost helpless before his charisma of ugly singing, garlanded porkpie hats, and billowy scarves moving on its own.
It is also how Scarlet Rivera’s chauffeur felt as well when he was musing about the relationship between artist and audience. “They charge each other like batteries,” he said about that communion between floor and stage. This is what Bob Dylan’s power is: Creating unescapable attraction, the kind where you hang off of every word, as if missing a single verse could ruin your entire understanding of a song. Before Dylan, we are mere devices of his music. If you surrender yourself to that— call it virtuosity or magic— then you will know transcendence. One scene shows a young woman crying at the end of a concert, falling into her friend’s shoulder. She felt it for sure, and I have no doubt you will too.
The film is now streaming on Netflix.
Check out some pics from the New York premiere: