Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese is a cumbersome title owing to Scorsese’s tortured attempt to distinguish this patchwork about Dylan’s 1976 ragamuffin touring show from his hagiographic 2005 documentary, No Direction Home.
Yet this Revue is still hagiography. Scorsese competes with the mythmaking of the already overworked Dylanolatry industry by constructing an elaborate mockumentary ruse around this 43-year-old pop-music footage, which doesn’t need it.
The musical performances of Dylan and entourage masked in white face paint, as in his 1976 fantasia Renaldo and Clara, are rousingly intense. Dylan frees himself from his own mystique. The masks hide nothing. Musicianship and fierce singing defy Nobel laureate Dylan’s sanctified-philosopher status. His gift for condensing complex feelings and social reflection into revelatory lyrics is turned back into entertainment — from before rock criticism “hallowed” it out. When Dylan coos “Oh, Sister” or bangs out a piano version of “Simple Twist of Fate,” he’s a showman, not a shaman.
Here’s the problem: Scorsese, whose moralistic ethnic thrillers or genre fantasies are politically evasive, picks up the usual leftist cant. Dylan’s slippery social pronouncements, mixing personal philosophical evolution with celebrity gamesmanship, ought to be seen in the Rolling Thunder concert as acts of individual sensibility. The voice-of-a-generation routine is not helpful to a new, politically disingenuous era.
Scorsese starts his Boomer-generation regard with silent-movie magic acts (recalling Hugo, possibly his worst film), puts in a fictitious documentary filmmaker named Stefan vanDorp, and then shifts to footage of the American bicentennial, establishing historical context by way of a liberal television cliché (this is a Netflix production). Thankfully, Dylan offers reminiscence of that period (when Scorsese’s Mean Streets and Taxi Driver dramatized national disillusionment) that Scorsese himself wouldn’t dare: “After America was shamefully run out of Vietnam, people lost their conviction about almost everything.”
But conviction is what makes the Rolling Thunder shows still count. “Isis” is performed as a glorious saga of self-discovery. “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” is given life, brought out of folk-music mothballs — just like Bryan Ferry’s radical, antic version suggested — by a thrilled performance from a blues band/jug band/rock band featuring Roger McGuinn and Mick Ronson, who add adventure to Dylan’s obvious joy.
Artistic conviction still rings in “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” when Dylan spits the song so that the well-known words, describing epic injustice, bite. It has come to indict the sanctimony of Dylan fans who pride themselves on appreciating its message. That’s what makes the over-50-year-old song a reproof to today’s SJW self-righteousness.
Scorsese fails to explore the irony that now surrounds Dylan’s legacy — not celebrity nonsense such as Dylan using “Just Like a Woman” to “seduce” Sharon Stone — but the irony that politicized folk music now conflicts with modern American complexity. The activist song “Hurricane,” about boxer Ruben Carter, unjustly jailed for a murder he didn’t commit, is sung with accusatory, mascaraed sidelong glances (Dylan is later seen urging CBS Records execs to promote it), but a live performance at the Clinton Correctional Facility doesn’t move the audience of inmates, despite all the song’s anger. Dylan’s ongoing, powerful fight against racism also seems ironic when he performs the Native American retort “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” before a similarly unresponsive Iroquois audience. The world of protest music now stands apart from daily stress. For that reason, Scorsese’s escape into mystifying folderol (including a clip from Children of Paradise) is insultingly jejune, a gesture of movie-brat privilege.
The framing of Dylan’s music inside a multimedia carnival (like an Italian “musical comedy de arte,” Dylan says) reaches a low point when Scorsese borrows a character from Robert Altman’s Tanner 88 political satire. At a time when we desperately need more clarity, this obfuscation is what the media call tone-deaf.
Maybe Scorsese realizes that the great American movie of the past half-century was Robert Altman’s Nashville, released the same year as Dylan’s comeback album Blood on the Tracks. Altman’s bounty of music culture and class and race politics was Americana deluxe. Something of its bicentennial spirit animated Dylan’s tour, but not Revue. Scorsese’s own political reticence ruins his attempt to match Altman’s sociopolitical exuberance.
Scorsese’s passion for rock music is part of his artistry, but his lack of political conviction means he thinks about Dylan the way a rock nerd does. Thinking, as trickster Dylan warns competitive ex-lover Joan Baez, “can f*** you up.”