I dreamed I saw St. Augustine
Alive as you or me
Tearing through these quarters
In the utmost misery
With a blanket underneath his arm
And a coat of solid gold
Searching for the very souls
Whom already have been sold
Arise, arise, he cried so loud
In a voice without restraint
Come out, ye gifted kings and queens
And hear my sad complaint
No martyr is among ye now
Whom you can call your own
So go on your way accordingly
But know you’re not alone
I dreamed I saw St. Augustine
Alive with fiery breath
And I dreamed I was amongst the ones
That put him out to death
Oh, I awoke in anger
So alone and terrified
I put my fingers against the glass
And bowed my head and cried
There are two ways to look at the new Netflix film “Rolling Thunder Revue: a Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese” — one is as a fanciful Bob Dylan-esque dream ramble where nothing is real or factual but all is entertaining. The other way to look at it — the way I much prefer — is that it revives something long dead and buried: the Rolling Thunder Revue as cultural event that was not fully appreciated at the time.
We don’t really need the former, though I appreciate the motive behind it, appreciate that Bob Dylan is really not all that interested in factual interpretations of his life or his work, and appreciate that Martin Scorsese wanted to celebrate that — sure, fine, whatever. We got that with “Renaldo and Clara.” We don’t need another “Renaldo and Clara.” Do we even need this movie? Yes. As a celebration of the footage captured when Bob Dylan took his roadshow on the road, playing small venues, visiting towns, putting himself practically in the laps of his fans, “Rolling Thunder Revue” is a brilliant work of legend-meets-legend cinema.
Time has let the historical significance of Dylan’s traveling roadshow grow. Scorsese, working here as part magician, part documentarian, does a remarkable job of bringing the tour to life — big and bright and unforgettable. For the concert footage alone, for what IS captured, it’s well-worth the more than two hours: in fact, it could have gone on for five more hours and still have been just as captivating. Thanks to the film preservationist and hardcore Dylan fan that Scorsese is, we get to see what it must have really been like to be one of those fortunate people who waited in lines for hours to cram into too-small venues to gaze upon Dylan himself, a mere few feet away.
Scorsese has dug it up from its resting place and polished it to look almost new. He combed through hours of footage taken of the tour, backstage, and anything else he could get his hands on to shape it into what will be shown in theaters and on Netflix June 12. That’s two-and-a-half hours of some of the most captivating Bob Dylan concert footage anyone has ever seen, digitally remastered, lovingly restored, mingled with what are apparently “fake” interviews of stuff that never happened. I’ll leave that exercise in puzzle-piece frustration up to you.
The “Rolling Thunder Revue” was such a brilliant idea — Dylan wanted to go on the road behind the wheel of an RV, gathering musicians like a glacier gathers debris on its great slide down a mountain. Here, it’s Dylan telling Joan Baez what a great singer she is, Joni Mitchell teaching Dylan and other musicians how to play her brilliant song “Coyote.” It’s Sam Shepard hired to write about the “Rolling Thunder Revue,” it’s Patti Smith reciting breathtaking poetry. It’s Allen Ginsberg, whom Dylan calls “a great dancer,” commenting on the goings on like a court jester.
Although some of the footage has been seen in “Renaldo and Clara,” much of it was waiting until now to be rediscovered. Dylan singing to a group of senior citizens, Dylan talking to Rubin Carter while writing and performing “Hurricane” (YES, THAT!). This is no stark expose on what was a tumultuous time in Dylan’s own life, the dissolution of his marriage, hitting right at the peak of what many consider his career to be: the one-two punch of “Blood on the Tracks” and “Desire,” both hitting in the same time frame as the “Rolling Thunder Revue” — 1975-1976. Those musicians who really fire up “Desire” are front and center — the brilliant violinist Scarlet Rivera is given her proper credit for her musical contribution to that album, and to “Hurricane” specifically.
This film is a loving tribute both to the man whose journey traveled alongside Scorsese’s own. Though Dylan started earlier, both had transformational trajectories that happened in the 1970s. After all, Dylan’s most popular album, “Blood on the Tracks,” was released in 1975, the same year of the “Rolling Thunder Revue.” Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” would hit in 1976.
This film was made for Dylan fans by a Dylan fan. The questions Scorsese asks, the footage he decides to show, the songs he features out of many options all point to a director who has been thinking long and hard about so many half truths and myths that were born out of this famous tour and in fact Dylan’s entire life and career. And I will have to begrudgingly admit that even the fake interviews and sleight of hand is in keeping with how Dylan himself prefers to tell his own story.
Some of the questions are directed straight at Dylan himself, now a much older man but still as cutting as ever. When he focuses on what he wants to say, he hits his target. Given the chance to ramble incoherently, he’ll do that too. Dylan answers to no one. He barely speaks to people, let alone answers direct questions, but Scorsese gets some of the best observations out of Dylan, especially about the “Rolling Thunder” tour, the musicians who played along, and why he wanted to do it in the first place. However, now I wonder how much of what Dylan said was real and how much wasn’t. I guess that’s the point. As usual.
Remastered, tinkered with until it became a cohesive whole, this is a movie that says something not just about Bob Dylan, but about how the world saw him, how fans saw him, how people interacted with him. Dylan captured is always one of those rare sights like a firefly trapped in a jar.
It’s hard to write critically about an experience that is so extremely pleasurable, at least for this Dylan fan. It would be no surprise that Scorsese would be perfectly tuned to that channel. This is the guy who plays the live version of Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” over one of the most powerful moments in his short film “Life Lessons.” Dylan is one of Scorsese’s most famous muses. He made “No Direction Home” about Dylan and in “The Last Waltz,” Scorsese’s film about The Band’s final concert, he bows to Dylan near the film’s end with a camera that travels from the ceiling on downward to show Dylan’s hat.
People at the time didn’t realize that Bob Dylan’s return to “the people” would shine so brightly these many decades later. They were caught up in a culture that was changing fast, a culture that was halfway out of the counterculture revolution of the 1960s and headed straight for Ronald Reagan’s revolution of 1980. It was the year “Jaws” dominated the box office, the year the last American troops choppered out of Vietnam, the height of the feminist and black power movements, and all anyone seemed to want to do was either rock out to Led Zeppelin or dance in discos. Dylan’s world was his own.
For those who knew what a gift the “Rolling Thunder Revue” actually was, who were lucky enough to see Bob Dylan emerge — makeup smeared all over his face, his eyes wild, his voice ferocious — they witnessed an event that had never happened before and would never happen again. Thanks to its gifted caretaker and messenger, Martin Scorsese, it has now been gifted back to all of us.
Note: “Every one of Bob Dylan’s performances in the film can be found in the forthcoming box set, Bob Dylan – Rolling Thunder Revue: The 1975 Live Recordings, a comprehensive anthology of music from the tour to be released June 7 as a companion piece to the film. This 14CD, 148-track collection from Columbia Records and Legacy Recordings includes all five of Dylan’s full sets from that tour that were professionally recorded, and also provides the listener with an intimate insider’s seat for recently unearthed tour rehearsals at New York’s S.I.R. studios.” – press notes