Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story is a new documentary that premiered on
Netflix on Wednesday, June 12 to great fanfare and some criticism. It is about
an interesting little tour that Dylan did in the mid-70s.
Dylan was depleted after his big profile comeback tour with The Band (who were
arguably just as great as the Beatles for a short period), and he wanted to do
something more spontaneous and smaller. So he decided to go on a little tour
playing small, intimate dates in little concert halls with some of his best
musician friends and people he admired. The tour was a huge cultural event and
financial disaster. Dylan still commanded great respect and drew big crowds but
since he played in small out of the way places (with a big costly band) most of
the people that wanted to see him could not get in and the tour was a total
Dylan had some pretty famous and talented friends. He ended up touring with
Roger McGuinn of the Byrds, the beat poet Allen Ginsberg, Rambling Jack Eliot,
Ronee Blakely, Scarlet Rivera (a mysterious gypsy like violinist from Chicago),
Ronnie Hawkins formerly of the Hawks, punk poet Patti Smith, his former paramour
Joan Baez, and even Joni Mitchell for a while. The last addition is somewhat
surprising because Mitchell recently said that she hated being compared to Dylan
who she considered a fraud and a plagiarist.
The new film which is entertaining but erratic was made by perhaps the finest
living American film maker, Martin Scorsese (Sorry Spielberg no contest).
Scorsese made many melodramatic masterpieces such as Mean Streets, Taxi Driver,
Raging Bull, King of Comedy, and Good Fellas. Even his more flawed films (such
as Last Temptation of Christ, Kundun and Silence) are fascinating and
provocative mandatory viewing.
What many people often overlook is that Scorsese has always made excellent use
of rock music in his films. What would the climax in Good Fellas be without the
use of Gimme Shelter? And he has made some outstanding music documentaries. He
directed No Direction Home about Dylan, Shine a Light about the Rolling Stones,
part of Concert in New York, and The Last Waltz featuring the Band, which is
considered by many to bet the best rock film ever made. Rolling Thunder Review
is not quite as ambitious or successful as most of those films but it is still
lively and informative.
Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story begins with a bunch of shots of a
magician or a trickster from George Méliès’ 1896 short “The Vanishing Lady which
is similar to the start of the Welles film F is for Fake which is also about
conning the audience.
The opening suggests that Bob Dylan and perhaps Scorsese himself can be seen as
makers of false illusions. Dylan himself has been called an illusionist or fake
many times perhaps because whenever he talked about his life he gave
contradictory sometimes made up on the spot information about himself which made
critics speculate even more about who the real Dylan was. (Donald Trump also
I don’t know if Scorsese is doing this as a tribute to Dylan, or if he is trying
to demystify the idea of documentary as truth but this film also combines real
facts about Dylan’s tour with complete fiction.
There is a whole sequence in the film devoted to Dylan’s supposed relationship
with Sharon Stone. Dylan recalls that he once met Sharon Stone before she was an
actress with her mom. He discusses how she joined him on his Rolling Thunder
Review (at the time she played no instruments and was a bigger fan of Kiss than
Dylan) and alludes to the face they had an affair. In reality the whole sequence
is manufactured. The film shows us Dylan in a crowd of fans with a very young
Stone photo shopped in. But the interviews reinforce the story suggesting that
Stone. Dylan and the director are all in on the gag, trick or illusion.
There is also a character named Jack Tanner in the film who was supposed to have
quoted from Dylan in his democratic speeches. But actually Tanner never existed,
he was a fictional character created for Robert Altman’s mockumentary Tanner
’88, and he is played by the actor Mike Murphy both here and in the 1975 Altman
film. It actually makes the film more entertaining (I still have Tanner ’88 on
VHS) if you have seem the Altman film, but the character and film are so obscure
this is sure to go over the heads of 98% of the Dylan film audience.
There is some other interesting and riveting stuff in the film. I loved Dylan’s
performance of The Hurricane. and the interviews with the unjustly imprisoned
boxer who inspired the song. At one point Joan Baez dresses up just like Dylan
complete with the same hat and facial makeup he has on, and the workers who see
her are momentarily fooled and immediately start treating her more respectfully
than normal. This also feels set up. I also liked the weird absurdist story
Patti Smith tells, and Allen Ginsberg’s lamentations about how poetry has fallen
in importance in American society. Ginsberg also dramatically recites powerful
lines from his most famous poem, Howl (I have an autographed copy of the poem at
home). Despite a few dead spots, it is all mostly pretty interesting, but
because of the earlier fake stuff you wonder how much of it is true.
If you don’t care much for Bob Dylan (who I consider to be the finest rock
lyricist of all), this film probably won’t convert you. If you are a Dylan
novice I would suggest you first check out the films, Bob Dylan Live at the
Gaslight 1961, Don’t Look Back (1967) and No Direction Home (2005). Also
immediately buy or stream Bringing it All Back Home (1965), Blonde on Blonde
(1966), John Wesley Harding (1967), The Basement Tapes (1975), and Blood on the
Tracks (1975). These are mandatory selections for any rock n’ roll or folk
So although Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story is far from the definitive
Dylan film document, it is a still worthwhile viewing experience for all Dylan
and folk rock fans. This film has many genuine pleasures and fine moments for
viewers that are willing to let themselves be taken for a ride.