Bob Dylan at work. Photo: Fernie Bob Dylan at work. Photo: Fernie

Scorsese’s new documentary shows Dylan grasping at the truth of an America that was figuring out what it wanted to be

Dylan’s 1975 travelling revue has long since entered rock legend, both as an event and a particular staging post within the man’s overall narrative. Dylan had returned to touring the previous year after an 8 year gap, in a selection of stadium shows with The Band. The Rolling Thunder revue was quite different, presenting audiences with yet another side of Dylan, in a disparate and idiosyncratic selection of venues in predominantly small to medium-sized towns, with a show that referenced the carny and a variety of other American myths. It ploughs a similar furrow to the one begun by Dylan in the sessions from 1967 that would comprise The Basement Tapes, which had eventually seen the light of day just prior to this tour.

The tour began in Plymouth, New Hampshire, a town named after the original Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts, where the Pilgram Fathers had landed in the Mayflower in 1620. Dylan had previously written about this moment of American ontology in 1965 in his song ‘Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream’, where he’d taken a scathing view of the political gap between the supposed intention of the puritan fathers and the reality of modern day USA. 1965 also saw the British tour that was documented in D. A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back, where the audience sees Dylan make his first tentative steps into going electric and into song forms that explored his experience of what it was like to be Bob Dylan at the time.

The Dylan of ten years later seen here seems more at ease with his place in the scheme of things, though the film does present a Dylan returning to political intervention, if not to quite the same tradition of protest song from which 1965 saw him turn away. Dylan’s song about the false imprisonment of Ruben Carter, ‘Hurricane’, is seen in the film, as is footage of his meeting Carter then, and interviews with both of them now. Moreover, the return of Joan Baez on a number of songs, as well as favourites from that era such as ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’, ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’ and Woody Guthrie’s ‘This Land is Your Land’ suggests a Dylan returning to social commentary, while continuing on with the mythic explorations of US identity begun in The Basement Tapes and 1968’s John Wesley Harding, and furthered by his soundtrack and acting role in Sam Peckinpah’s epic Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid in 1973. 

Scorsese’s film is another (re)presentation of Dylan’s mythology, and in quite a knowing fashion. The film consists of found footage of the tour and mostly contemporary interviews. The mythologising is present within the film, as the various players and other figures are given names corresponding to their roles: for example, Allan Ginsberg is listed as the Oracle of Delphi, Joan Baez as the Balladeer and Martin von Haselberg as the filmmaker, having previously in the film been given the nom de guerre Stefan van Dorp; appropriate, considering his is the most antagonistic presence in the film. Scorsese also seems to be commenting here upon the lack of centrality of the director in what is essentially the Bob Dylan show, and indeed, his hand is in many ways quite absent compared to other music documentaries he’s made, despite his name being in the film’s title: when we hear a voice from behind the camera, it’s not his, and there is none of the usual interaction with his subjects that audiences will know from films like The Last Waltz (1978) or 2008’s Shine a Light.

The film begins with some silent film of a magician performing a disappearing trick, followed by the title ‘Conjuring the Rolling Thunder Re-vue’, a notion that brings to mind Kenneth Anger – interestingly, the phrase ‘an alchemic mix of fact and fantasy’ has been employed by Netflix in its blurb accompanying the film – and which sets up the spectator for the following two hours, hinting that all may not be as it seems, and that there is no fixed history being presented here.

There is then a state of the nation address, effectively, initially based on the bicentennial. There is footage of people in New York City, Dylan singing ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’, ex-president Nixon discussing ‘the mission of America’, various parades, and Dylan interviewed now, discussing how people had seemed to lose their way in the context of the United States’ defeat in Vietnam. President Ford is seen, as are more parades, then the contemporary Dylan is seen again, attempting to say what the revue was, and failing. He mischievously suggests that he doesn’t remember anything about it. From the outset, then, the spectator’s sense of belief in the image is shaken, but in a way that does of course appeal to the average Dylan fan: such performative mythologising has been part of his game since his early days. More importantly, what is being suggested is that the whole act of mythologising that makes up so much of the US’s sense of itself in on similarly shaky ground. This film is simply another chapter in that.

The structure of the film is set up here, though there is less interaction with footage of the political figures of the day in the rest of it. Mostly, the audience is presented with fantastic concert footage, off-stage footage of members of the revue, and of course contemporary interviews, which provide a selection of sometimes contrasting views of what happened in 1975. The key players in the story – Ginsburg, Baez, Scarlet Rivera, Larry ‘Ratso’ Sloman, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Sam Shepherd, members of Dylan’s management team, and more – are introduced, as are minor figures in the story who have since become major figures in US popular culture, such as Sharon Stone. We also see some background to Dylan’s new songs – what would make up the 1976 album, Desire – via a discussion of his interaction with traditional music in the south of France. The tradition of the masque, and its origins in Japanese kabuki, is discussed throughout.

Most gloriously, there are the live performances, with a number of songs presented in full. There is a particularly intense version of ‘Isis’, where Dylan spits out the words with incredible fervour. The song is very much in the vein of the mythical traditions that the film and Dylan’s work described above tap into, being a Western-influenced tale of grave robbery that has always seemed to be crying out to be used in a Peckinpah or Monte Hellman film.

Different traditions of American spirituality are counter-posed in the film, in particular in a section where Ginsberg and Dylan visit Jack Kerouac’s grave and footage of Billy Graham discussing the need for America to sing are seen close together. The beat tradition of the road providing opportunities for new interactions is seen in the stories of the various people who hooked up with the tour or got involved on individual dates, such as Sharon Stone, Joni Mitchell and Roger McGuinn. The revue took in native American reservations, and there is discussion of the meaning of Rolling Thunder, which both referred to Vietnam and to the tradition of truth-telling in native American culture. 

There is footage of the next president, Jimmy Carter, who is presented positively, both as a politician and a fan of Dylan’s music. Scorsese here suggests a yearning for the missed opportunity that the social democratic policies of Carter might have given for national renewal in the wake of Vietnam if the road to Reaganism had not been taken. This is followed by the longish section on Ruben Carter, and Dylan’s role in his eventual freedom.

Following a great duet on ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’ with McGuinn, the film ends with year-on year tour dates coming right up to 2018. Rolling Thunder, as Dylan fans will know, also began the seemingly endless tour that he’s been on in the subsequent forty-odd years, and in that sense can be seen as the space that reconnected Dylan to the minstrel tradition that 1965 saw him shy away from. There is then an encore, which presents the players and makers, with ‘Romance in Durango’ heard.

Scorsese’s film is a fantastic document of a great songwriter still at the peak of his power. It’s not quite the commentary on America then and now – Trump is noticeably absent from any discussions – that it could have been, but that is only staying true to what Dylan is and what he is not. He referred to himself as a ‘song and dance man’ in Pennebaker’s 1965 film, and that’s what we see here, but song and dance as piercing commentary upon what it is to be alive: not always political, not always revolutionary in that sense, but always so very close to the truth.