Even after 45 years, no one can agree on why Bob Dylan called that tour “Rolling Thunder Revue” — it might be one of those things that only gets more elusive over time. The “Revue” part is easy enough: Dylan was famous enough to do what he wanted, but too frazzled to do it alone, so he extended an open invitation to the best minds of his generation to join him for a series of intimate shows across the United States; it would be a folk happening and a freewheeling gypsy caravan and a chance for a busful of beautiful seekers to go out and look for whatever it was they were trying to find.
The reason for “Rolling Thunder,” on the other hand, is a bit harder to pin down. Some say that Dylan was inspired by a storm that clapped its way across the East Village. Others have suggested that he borrowed the name from the Chief of the Iroquois people living on the Tuscarora Reservation. Could it really have been just a coincidence that a countercultural movement shared the same title as the U.S. government’s not-so-secret mid-‘60s bombing raid of North Vietnam?
Dylan himself doesn’t seem to remember. “‘Rolling Thunder’ was about nothing,” he scoffs at the start of Martin Scorsese’s mesmeric and thrillingly unsure new documentary fantasia about the tour, the singer staring at his feet and shaking his head as he chafes his way through his first on-camera interview in more than a decade. “I don’t remember a thing about it — I wasn’t even born.”
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It’s but one of many points of contention in “Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese,” a rambling magic trick of a movie that reanimates a hazy chapter of American history by unmooring it from the facts of its time, and even perhaps from time itself. Splitting the difference between Todd Haynes’ impressionistic “I’m Not There” and Scorsese’s own previous Dylan film (the more straightforward “No Direction Home”), “Rolling Thunder Revue” isn’t a concert doc or an act of archival preservation or yet another dithering nostalgia trip back to a decade when everyone was young and everything seemed possible — it’s all of those things in order to be none of those things.
Assembled from an immaculately restored motherlode of 16mm vérité footage shot by Howard Alk and David Myers (much of which Dylan left to rot on the cutting room floor when he was done editing “Renaldo and Clara”), and sprinkled with a fairy dust of unlabeled fiction, “Rolling Thunder Revue” is a mythic story of self-invention. It’s a musical séance for the hope that we keep searching for as a country and then losing along the way. It’s Scorsese’s delirious attempt to capture the quicksilver energy of an idea that’s too powerful to retain any kind of permanent shape.
Dylan obsessives will obviously be in heaven — gasping at the sparks that fly when old flame Joan Baez touches the folk legend’s shoulder, awing at what happens during an impromptu party at Gordon Lightfoot’s house, and observing a holy silence throughout the sustained long take in which Dylan and witchy violinist Scarlet Rivera crush “A Simple Twist of Fate” — but the film digs so deep into its strange bag of tricks that even non-fans and neophytes are liable to be caught in its spell.
Whatever the etymology of “Rolling Thunder Revue,” Scorsese makes it clear that it was a fitting title for a show that drifted around the continent like a sunstorm; a tour that didn’t seem like it was planned so much as it was, ahem, blowing in the wind. The film often cuts to Dylan — mystic, aloof, and unreasonably beautiful even when his face wasn’t caked in the white kabuki makeup he smeared on every night — behind the wheel of the bus, and you never get the impression that he really knows where he’s going next, or who he might run into along the way. It’s almost like Dylan is totally lost, and Scorsese adds to that confusion as often as often as he can.
The Rolling Thunder Revue hit the road in the fall of 1975, and would be over before Independence Day the following summer, but “Rolling Thunder Revue” begins with a cheeky bit of temporal distortion by opening with America’s bicentennial in July of 1976. The dates may not align, but the ecstatic truth of that anniversary prevails: Nixon had resigned, the Vietnam War had ended, and the United States was a country that was ready to look in the mirror and shed its skin — a country desperate for the kind of reinvention that came so naturally to its artists and revolutionaries. Scorsese’s film evokes a time when some people were waiting for a new way forward, while others were eager to blaze the trail for themselves. “Life isn’t about finding yourself,” Dylan scowls, allowing himself to be profound before he reverts back to being funny. “Life is about creating yourself.”
Dylan and Scorsese both know that no one can do that on their own. This documentary channels the spirit of its eponymous tour by spreading its attention far and wide, as “Rolling Thunder Revue” keys in on so many supporting characters that Dylan becomes little more than a beacon or a binding agent. The archival footage focuses as much on Allen Ginsberg’s unfulfilled musical ambitions as it does on Dylan’s backstage persona.
In between occasional song performances — a discerning sample of the 148 tracks that are on Columbia Records’ forthcoming Revue box set — Scorsese is eager to shine a light on personalities like Joni Mitchell, “Nashville” star Ronee Blakely, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott; even Scarlet Rivera’s blue-collar limo driver gets some memorable screen-time, to say nothing of the bits about Dylan’s run-ins with a 19-year-old actress named Sharon Stone (sure to be an eyebrow-raising surprise for some viewers).
All of these characters are held together by the centrifugal force of what they conjured on stage and backstage and in the nowhere between shows. No one can seem to agree what they’re supposed to be doing there or what the point of this whole thing is supposed to be, and Scorsese wisely doesn’t try to force all these people to share any kind of unifying truth. His movie is more interested in how they play off of each other — how they’re wearing masks and taking them off and always in flux even when a lot of these legends were already famous enough to feel their personas hardening around them.
Some of these bits are more compelling than others, but a prolonged sense of disorientation helps smooth out the space between them. “Rolling Thunder Revue” doesn’t allow the sands of time to remain settled for long, as Scorsese clouds the archival footage with present-day talking head interviews that subtly (and mischievously) blend truth and imagination until it starts feeling like you’re not watching a historical document about the ’70s so much as you’re hearing the distant echoes of a song that you already have stuck in your head; this isn’t past or present but rather both at once.
There will never be another Bob Dylan or Joan Baez, but that doesn’t mean they ever really existed as we remember them — they were always in a state of creating themselves, and driving across a country that was never as whole as it wanted to imagine.
Netflix will release “Rolling Thunder Revue” on Netflix and in select theaters on June 12.