“What stays of that tour? Nothing. Ashes.” This was Bob Dylan’s sometimes evasive response when questioned concerning the Rolling Thunder Revue, his infamous 1975-76 North American tour backed a ramshackle band that featured Joan Baez, Ramblin Jack Elliott, Roger McGuinn, T-Bone Burnett, and numerous hangers-on from the Manhattan artwork world. “It’s about nothing,” Dylan continued. “It’s simply one thing that occurred 40 years in the past.” The interview comes from Martin Scorsese’s new pseudo-documentary concerning the tour, Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story, out this week on Netflix. It’s the primary on-camera Q&A Dylan has executed in roughly 10 years, and probably the most revealing since 2004’s No Path Residence, Scorsese’s final movie about him.
Dylan’s insistence on the tour’s ephemerality is ironic contemplating the existence of the documentary itself, which options different footage of performances, rehearsals, events, and different unusual stops alongside the street. Scorsese had loads of archival materials to select via, since Dylan and the gang had launched into the Rolling Thunder Revue with a movie crew in tow. Their process, ostensibly, was to gather footage for a four-hour meta-film impressed by the French New Wave. Launched in 1978, Renaldo and Clara ended up a largely unparsable mess, regardless of some good efficiency footage and semi-staged backstage scenes; amongst different curiosities, it options rockabilly legend Ronnie Hawkins enjoying the character of “Bob Dylan.” The Rolling Thunder Revue itself was equally haphazard: Dylan adopted quite a lot of artistic approaches to which he would by no means return once more, embracing the spirit of freeform collaboration, using theatrical parts within the stage present, and importing a uniquely unhinged power into his performances. It was ill-organized, wildly formidable, and doubtless baffling to even lots of his most accommodating followers. It additionally resulted in a few of the most singular music and electrifying performances of his profession.
The music itself was additionally rigorously documented. The Netflix documentary is one thing of a companion piece to The Rolling Thunder Revue: The 1975 Stay Recordings, a field set launched on Friday, which incorporates 14 discs of professional audio recordings from exhibits, rehearsals, and the kinds of casual performances at offbeat venues that Dylan appeared to take pleasure in giving on the time. There’s a brief set at a Massachusetts mahjong parlor, for an viewers that principally consisted of aged ladies, and one other on the Tuscarora Indian Reservation, house of Chief Rolling Thunder, the tour’s namesake. The field set is the second-longest in Dylan’s hefty discography of archival releases, which already has a number of current entries which might be daunting even for Bob completists.
The medium of supply makes clear the meant viewers for every: One is a simple click-through on Netflix; the opposite is principally a full set of musical encyclopedias, and can set you again about $100. Each have revelatory tales to inform about what makes the Rolling Thunder Revue worthy of its difficult, commemorated status. However Scorsese’s movie stands because the clear inventive triumph: constructed to maneuver not simply novice Dylanologists, but in addition casually viewers. It serves each as a well-rounded exploration of a specific interval in Dylan’s profession, and as an ingenious subversion of the documentary type, within the custom of Orson Welles’s deliberately misleading 1973 experimental movie F for Pretend, and maybe of Renaldo and Clara itself. Scorsese freely toys with the details (Sharon Stone didn’t tour with Rolling Thunder, people, regardless of what she might inform you), nodding to the absurdist self-mythology Dylan was cultivating on the tour whereas additionally shedding mild on the precise actuality of historic report.
Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story presents a portrait of Dylan within the midst of a personally confused however creatively fertile interval. Within the late 1960s and early ‘70s, he cultivated a home way of life in upstate New York together with his spouse Sara and their youngsters. He launched into a stadium tour with The Band in 1974, and the time away from residence and ensuing infidelities strained his relationship with Sara. He would contact on that relationship’s dissolution on his subsequent studio album, Blood on the Tracks, an unusually private launch that followers hailed as a artistic comeback. By the summer time of 1975, Dylan was absolutely estranged from Sara and hanging out in Manhattan, frequenting golf equipment like The Different Finish, The Bitter Finish, and Gerde’s People Metropolis, reconnecting with previous buddies from his personal folkie years and scoping the brand new native expertise. That is the place Scorsese’s movie picks up. Early on, we see a efficiency from Patti Smith, who later bullshits with Dylan about their shared curiosity within the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud.
The fleeting nature of the interplay is indicative of the movie as an entire, which provides solely minimal, vignette-like context for Dylan’s private life in the course of the tour, going solely so far as the archival footage permits. (We by no means see Sara, for example, even though Dylan was steadily singing about her onstage and she or he tagged alongside for a part of the tour.) On these reels, Dylan typically feels as distant as he appeared to be from most individuals on the tour. Lead guitarist Mick Ronson claimed by no means to have spoken to him.
Nonetheless, there are fairly a number of revealing moments within the footage, which can probably take followers who may need anticipated a extra by-the-numbers documentary off guard. Even a few of the segments that have been at the least partially staged carry a cost. There’s one trade between Joan Baez and Dylan by which they contact on the sudden termination of their relationship within the mid-1960s. “Nicely, you went off and acquired married,” Baez says, diffusing a second of nostalgia. In a 1978 interview with Playboy, Dylan mentioned the scene, a second of which ended up in Renaldo and Clara: “Appears fairly actual, don’t it?…Identical to in a Bergman film. There’s numerous spontaneity that goes on. Often, the individuals in his movies know one another, to allow them to interrelate. There’s life and breath in each body as a result of everybody knew one another.”
Baez and Dylan’s contentious and enduring attraction to at least one one other is a aspect plot all through the movie. At one level within the tour, Baez started strolling round backstage in a parodic Dylan costume. Elsewhere, an viewers heckler yells “What a stunning couple” earlier than certainly one of Baez and Dylan’s acoustic duets, prompting Baez to shout again: “Couple of what?” Their duo performances have been typically near-yelled, amped up from the best way they might have finished the identical songs within the early 1960s: the musical upshot, maybe, of a repartee that’s each electrifying and calmly caustic.
Different offstage scenes are so singular that it’s exhausting to consider they’ve by no means emerged earlier than. In a phase that may threaten to maneuver any fan of each Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan to tears, Mitchell, who tagged alongside on the tour for some time, teaches a model new track of hers—it’s fucking “Coyote”!—to Dylan on guitar whereas studying the lyrics off a sheet of paper. (Maybe not by the way, it’s rumored that Mitchell wrote that future-classic music concerning the playwright and actor Sam Shepard, who was additionally among the many Revue’s members, conscripted to help with Renaldo and Clara.) One other outtake from the Renaldo and Clara footage includes a lengthy dialog between Dylan and the tour’s resident poet, Allen Ginsberg, at Jack Kerouac’s grave, punctuated by poetry recitation and harmonium jams.
The modern interviews are additionally worthwhile, offering the movie with a wanted lighthearted perspective. On the face of it, the Revue was a messy and misbegotten endeavor, and Scorsese doesn’t draw back from its absurdity and pretense. Neither does Dylan. For a infamous grouch, his interviews are surprisingly hilarious; consider it or not, he appears to be having one thing resembling a very good time giving them. In his speaking head moments, he tells anti-tall tales concerning the tour, delivering comedian anecdotes about supporting characters corresponding to tour biographer Larry “Ratso” Sloman (so nicknamed by Baez after the Midnight Cowboy character) and an invented, crotchety experimental filmmaker character, performed by director Martin von Haselberg.
However not one of the backstage enterprise would matter as a lot have been it not caught between superbly restored footage of performances, that are the main target the movie. Dylan assembled loads of fierce backing bands through the years; in a area that additionally consists of The Band, it will be troublesome to argue for the Rolling Thunder ensemble—or some other group—as the best. However as one commentator observes, Dylan by no means appeared extra like a part of a band than he did right here. You get the sense that this was a brand new group of pals that Dylan fell into the behavior of partying with quite a bit, who collectively dreamed up a wierd and ephemeral musical dynamic—one which he by no means would have orchestrated on his personal, and which incessantly appears barely out of his management. Within the studio, the end result was one of the crucial polarizing and singular entries into his discography: the LP Want, recorded earlier than the Rolling Thunder tour and launched in the midst of it. The band pushed the maximalist sound of the document to a brand new apex onstage, gaining mass as they picked up new members whereas shifting from city to city.
The Revue band’s sound was a puzzling amalgamation of druggy ‘70s rock, outlaw nation, and gypsy jazz. The crux of it was violinist Scarlett Rivera, who possessed a occultish je ne sais quoi. (Within the movie, Dylan spins a yarn about discovering a sword and snake, amongst different treasures, in her dressing room.) Her enjoying had essential commonalities with a few of the sounds that Dylan on the time, together with the florid gypsy guitar music he had heard on a bender in France the earlier yr (the inspiration for “One Extra Cup of Espresso,” allegedly). No picture exemplifies the contrasts of the band higher than stage footage of Riviera, in black garb and decorative face make-up, standing alongside Mick Ronson together with his blown-out platinum ‘do, lately displaced from David Bowie’s band and searching that means, firing off muscular licks and searing solos via flashy pedals.
However probably the most hanging efficiency footage, clearly, is of Dylan himself. At most of the exhibits, he was in full theatrical mode, bug-eyed and decked out in ghoulish kabuki-like face paint. The marginally demented strategy compliments the narrative songs of Want nicely. The spotlight of the efficiency clips, and lots of Rolling Thunder units, is “Isis,” throughout which Dylan would put down his guitar, mug for the viewers, and gesticulate wildly within the mode of expressionist theater. Songs like “Isis” and Want’s basic opener “Hurricane” have been epic tales, and it was incumbent upon Dylan to place them throughout clearly to audiences that weren’t but conversant in them. He typically appeared estranged from older materials, attacking it in a extra subdued method. Within the solo efficiency of his 1965 favourite “Mr. Tambourine Man” that introduces the movie, Dylan feels like he’s singing each with and towards the emphasis of its psychedelic lyrics, which really feel just like the handiwork of a unique songwriter from a special period.
In one of many movie’s archival clips, an interviewer asks Joan Baez whether or not was Dylan consciously singing in a “totally different,” extra feral voice on the tour. Baez doesn’t precisely acede, however acknowledges that there was a definite “Rolling Thunder power” to the performances. If the documentary footage leaves you with any doubt about whether or not Dylan was capable of maintain that power each night time, the attendant 14-disc field set makes it eminently clear that he was. At a time when cultural curiosity within the Grateful Lifeless is surging, nevertheless, the Rolling Thunder field feels prefer it couldn’t have come at a friendlier time. It’s divided show-by-show, with a disc of odds and ends from stops off the street. One of the simplest ways to digest it recollects the process of the fashionable, dedicated Deadhead: surf round, decide a present that appears good, and settle in.
However these are very totally different sorts of rock exhibits from the typical Lifeless date. There will not be a number of many years to sift by means of, the pool of fabric is smaller, and the songs supply restricted room for improvisation. That’s all to say: listening to hours of the so-called “Rolling Thunder” power might be punishing. The band delivered a blistering, full-throttle efficiency each night time in the course of the hour or so Dylan himself was on stage, fueled each by Dylan’s personal aesthetic imaginative and prescient and, inevitably, loads of cocaine. (The remainder of the proceedings, which periodically included a set of latest materials from Joni and readings by Ginsberg, typically lasted as much as three hours longer.) Dylan’s units had comparatively little dynamic variation; typically, his performances appeared to be mocking the songs as a lot as supporting them. By the third or fourth sardonic runthrough of, say, “The Lonesome Ballad of Hattie Caroll,” it’s arduous to return to any new revelations. Streamlined compilations of this music—the Bootleg Collection Vol. 5 and the botched Renaldo and Clara soundtrack Exhausting Rain are nice primers—distill this era nicely.
Nevertheless, for devotees, there are many fascinating musical tropes and outliers to relish. A number of hours in, you might discover the band’s propensity for falling into one thing like island music. “It Ain’t Me, Babe” will get a reggae facet, because of Ronson’s wah-wah guitar. The group’s tackle the spartan nation of John Wesley Harding’s “I Dreamed I Noticed St. Augustine” juxtaposes Baez’s shut concord with a calypso backbeat, and “I Shall Be Launched” typically sounded prefer it might have been performed in the midst of the night time at some decrepit Hawaiian resort. The playful music continent-hopping of Want spills over all over the place.
The Rolling Thunder band’s electrified tackle “A Onerous Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” greatest distills their defiant and alienating aspect, retooling one in every of Dylan’s most poetic “protest” compositions of his acoustic period as a Muddy Waters blues on amphetamines. In his later years, Dylan has toured typically, and indulged a sure perversity as a stay arranger, viewing his songs as uncooked putty to be molded in response to his whims at any given second. The unique melody may recur, or it’d all the time really feel barely off; the chords may change on the anticipated time, or they could by no means change in any respect. (To biographer Howard Sounes, guitarist Ed Stoner recalled that he’d stand behind Dylan and watch his hand: “You possibly can anticipate when the chord goes to vary by watching the muscle mass chill out.”) You possibly can argue that the Rolling Thunder tour marks the purpose when Dylan’s strategy to efficiency and interpretation definitively loosened, and when he turned obsessive about touring as a lifestyle, relatively than only a artistic outlet.
In Rolling Thunder Revue, Scorsese cuts regularly to a shot of Dylan driving the RV during which he stayed through the tour, whereas the remainder of its shifting lineup packed into within the bus. Dylan’s serene face suggests that he’s imagining himself as a truck driver or another romantic itinerant character—that there’s something in that fixed motion which fits his sensibilities on a degree past music. The movie ends with a dizzying scroll of Dylan’s tour dates from 1975 to 2018; throughout lots of these years, valuable few days are left unaccounted for. Within the film, each Dylan and Rubin “Hurricane” Carter—the middleweight boxer convicted of homicide whose lengthy imprisonment is the topic of Dylan’s “Hurricane”—recall a line Carter used to say to Dylan once they bumped into one different: “What are you looking for, Bob?” Like all good Bob Dylan story, each the movie and the field set depart you a similar lingering query.