Bob Dylan is really good at practical jokes. As honest and detailed as his lyrics were when he performed them, Dylan looked into the lenses of cameras and eyes of journalists interviewing him with a look of either juvenile amusement or absolute disdain. He sang with so much raw soul and conviction that his fans saw him as a gift from God, to which he rebuked by saying he didn’t believe in anything let alone a higher power. The world wanted him to be the messiah but he was just effortlessly passing through life not thinking much about his actions. It’s something of a cruel joke to play on millions of people who see one’s work as vital moments in the history of culture, but at least Dylan was entertaining while doing it. He was also consistent in his gags throughout his near 60-year music career. There was his random conversion to Christianity in 1979 after starting off being remarkably against religion and then traveling to Israel in the early 1970s. The existence of 1970’s Self Portrait was Dylan throwing a pie in the face of his own hype. Hell, even his long-running Bootleg Series feels contradictory when you think about how a bootleg can be an “official” release. Dylan revels in having no master but himself though as previously mentioned, that attitude reaped rewards for the rest of us.
After nearly eight years away from the stage, Bob Dylan and the Band hit the road in 1974 for a massive tour. He had mostly retreated from public life after being burned out from his incredible run in the 1960s and a motorcycle accident in 1966, so Dylan performing live was a big deal. He and the Band’s six-week tour was a major success and signified the return of one of rock music’s greatest stars. With 1974 being a booming year for rock (Clapton, Bowie, Queen and the Rolling Stones had big success in those 12 months), the logical thing to do was to keep the tour going and play to bigger audiences completing Dylan’s comeback. The former Mr. Zimmerman did otherwise, recording (and then re-recording) one of his most beloved albums Blood on the Tracks and then releasing The Basement Tapes in 1975. As busy as he was that year, he would become even busier professionally and personally.
That transition is captured at length in Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese, a hefty documentary of Dylan’s stripped-down tour of the same name that ran from 1975 to 1976. Instead of taking on typical concert stages and stadiums, Dylan opted to put on something similar to an old-timey traveling circus playing theaters and concert halls. Accompanied by the likes of Joan Baez, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Allen Ginsberg , Dylan traded leather jackets and button-ups for cowboy attire and face masks to give his performances a sense of rustic mysticism. Even the design of the curtain that came up and down every night made it look like Dylan belonged in a saloon instead of an arena. Dylan drove the whole bus, figuratively and literally, by reworking the arrangements of his catalogue into a stripped-back country-tinged folk rock with remnants of his electric edge. And there was Dylan himself, standing onstage with white face paint on and bugging his eyes out to the audience like a clown telling a punchline with a sneer instead of a hollar. And what does he think he accomplished with this legendary tour 44 years later.
“I don’t have a clue! It happened so long ago, I wasn’t even born,” the haggard, grumpy 76-year-old says during a two-year-old interview used in the doc. He smiles and laughs as he says this, perhaps secretly remembering the real reason for the Rolling Thunder Revue: fun. Bob Dylan’s idea of fun might not be warranted (or known) amongst others, but it was certainly not what anyone expected from him in 1975. With the failure of Vietnam and the shame of President Nixon still fresh, one would think Dylan and his fellow poets like Baez, Ginsberg and Patti Smith (who adorably crushes on Dylan early on in the doc) would make another angry rally cry for revolution in America. Instead, Dylan wanted to bring the joy and togetherness he felt working with his friends and twangy musicians to the masses.
After going through the breakup that fueled Blood on the Tracks and revisiting New York’s inner city folk scene (or what was left of it), he got some rockers together on acoustic guitars at S.I.R. Studios and ran through plays of “One More Cup of Coffee (Valley Below)” and “If You See Her, Say Hello” that are somehow very rough and yet overflowing with heart. When that band eventually hit the road, they tore through cuts of “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” and “Isis” like a bunch of teenagers drunk on love or a gang who just robbed a bank. Guitarist Mick Ronson’s solos catch fire every time and violinist Scarlet Rivera is the anchor of the band putting the perfect touch of classical country kick to each song. Dylan should be grateful he nearly hit her with his car on a random night, Rivera recounts in the back of a Rolls Royce sporting a bowler hat and a sword. The concert footage Scorsese displays here is delectable, showing Dylan and co. finding a wholesome unity in their rhythm while chugging away at riffs while their leader honks away at a harmonica. The sound is crisp and the footage is somehow gorgeously restored capturing Dylan as his most relaxed onstage. Seeing the whites of his eyes and teeth jut out during “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” it’s the goofiest Dylan has ever appeared onstage, and that’s even before he wears an actual mask onstage. Why?
“When somebody’s wearing a mask, he’s gonna tell you the truth,” Dylan says with a grin, seeing the joke that he revealed more about himself behind the mask than he ever did with his face on an album cover or in this case a documentary. You rarely get snippets of just Dylan as the 142-minute doc only holds on its titular subject at length for live performances. Aside from that, it zig-zags between all the bit players on the Revue so frequently that you forget this is a documentary about Bob Dylan. At least it’s supposed to be: Scorsese clearly had so much material to work with that he perhaps wasn’t sure what the throughline story was to tell aside from this freaky tour. One minute the late Sam Shepard talks about how Dylan pitched him the idea of combining the tour with the making of his ill-fated 1978 film Renaldo and Clara, the next is Dylan talking about Ginsberg’s envy of musician’s lyrics being hailed as the new poetry, and then Sharon Stone shows up to talk about how she was dragged to the Revue when she was a teenager by her mother before catching Dylan’s eye. There are other themes and elements scattered throughout the movie that paint the environment surrounding Dylan instead of Dylan himself: his heroes of poetry have died leaving the future of the medium uncertain, his fans are both amazed and confused by this act of whimsy and despite the bond shared onstage, many of his bandmates feel alienated from him. Baez’s take on things is another interesting nugget, being arguably the person closest to Dylan and yet also feeling so left out that she dressed up like him to see if anyone could tell the difference. Scorsese could’ve mined a lot more out of the interviews and footage he got but wisely restrains himself. It’s by no means aimless, rather overloaded with material that keeps distracting the viewer from the star attraction.
Much like the other famous Dylan doc, 1967’s Bob Dylan: Don’t Look Back, Rolling Thunder Revue makes room for how fame took its toll on Dylan. In the 60s, Dylan went from snickering twenty-something amused by his popularity to lashing out at reporters and being fearful of his own fans. Rolling Thunder Revue sees Dylan in his mid-30s, more relaxed and relieved at whatever control he had left of his own exposure but occasionally still lonely. It makes sense he would latch on to any odd newcomer that popped by the tour whether it be writer Larry “Ratso” Sloman or Joni Mitchell, who pops by the tour for a stirring backstage performance of “Coyote.” He even finds a cause to rally for in Rubin Carter, the boxer wrongly imprisoned for murder that inspired the Dylan classic “Hurricane.” Carter himself is interviewed for the movie, amusingly animated when talking about Dylan and asking him every time they run into each other, “Have you found it yet?”
“I’d say, ‘Hurricane, I’m searchin’ for the Holy Grail. Imma search until I find it, like Sir Galahad.’ That’s what I’m lookin’ for.” And that’s how Scorsese leaves Bob Dylan on Rolling Thunder Revue: a pilgrim searching for a home or a traveler on the hunt for treasure. That seems to be the point of the tour itself, not to make a statement but just to pass on through and try to make an audience smile. This looks like the most fun Dylan has ever had as a performer and even still he couldn’t quite take control of his life. Rolling Thunder Revue is a look at Dylan learning a valuable lesson: keep on rolling. It’s why his Never-Ending Tour kicked off a few years later, it’s why dug his heels into his late-90s comeback despite nearly dying the same decade, it’s why he still puts his lips to a microphone despite sounding like a crocodile with strep throat. The show must go on, might as well have some fun while you’re at it. Rolling Thunder Revue has its message in a much earlier Dylan cut: don’t think twice, it’s alright.