Just when you think you have this unruly, untamed phantasmagoria pegged, this unclassifiable documentary/concert film — subtitled “A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese” — continually pulls the rug from under you. The film features a glorious restoration of previously abandoned footage from the Rolling Thunder Revue as Dylan and company, including violinist Scarlet Rivera and guitarist Mick Ronson, played gigs across America from 1975 to 1976.
It was a time of transition for the tambourine man. His electronic success in large stadiums left him yearning to play smaller venues to get closer to audiences going through major transitions themselves in an America torn by Watergate, a futile war and a disgraced President. Yet the mystery abides. There’s Dylan on stage, his hat festooned with flowers, his face covered in white paint (a tribute to Kiss, he says) and sometimes a plastic mask. What’s he hiding? Nothing, as Dylan sees it: “You only tell the truth when you’re wearing a mask.” It’s all part of a leap off into the wild blue yonder of no-limits, 1970s imagination.
Dylan’s singing has rarely rung out with such power and vocal precision — it’s revelatory to hear him invigorate “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” “Simple Twist of Fate” and “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” The then-34-year-old was working on the album “Desire” at the time of the tour. One track, “Hurricane”— a protest song that railed against the racially motivated murder conviction of boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter — brings out all of Dylan’s old protest-singer fire. Simultaneously, Scorsese was prepping his volcanic comment on the era with Taxi Driver. You can feel that old black magic coursing through both artists as you watch Revue.
And there’s more. The film features a new interview (the first in 10 years) with the Nobel laureate and reflections on his traveling troubadours, including Ramblin Jack Elliott, Roger McGuinn and Joni Mitchell. Dylan’s backstage banter with former lover Joan Baez, in which they snap at each other for marrying other people, feels shockingly intimate — even if you know these moments are lifted from Dylan’s 1978 film, Renaldo and Clara, a fictionalized account of his own life.
Rolling Thunder Revue plays like a great Dylan song, as the artist darts playfully and poetically between fact and fiction. Scorsese follows suit, using scenes, not just from Renaldo and Clara, but from a documentary on Roma travelers, the French cinema masterpiece Children of Paradise, a pilgrimage Dylan and poet Allen Ginsberg took to the grave of Jack Kerouac and anything else that illuminates the mosaic of the artist’s creative process. Scorsese knows what goes into a Dylan song—his nearly four-hour, 2005 documentary No Direction Home traced the musician’s early-to-going-electric years. But Rolling Thunder Revue is a different animal. It’s part tour diary, part trickster handbook and totally mesmerizing. Rockumentary-wise, you’ve never seen or heard anything like it.