Bob Dylan speaks!
In Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese, the new Netflix documentary that premieres on the video streaming service Wednesday, June 12, and has a one night only Philadelphia Film Society showing at the Film Center the night before, the craggy Bard grants his first on screen interview in a decade.
The subject is a mythic chapter in Dylan history: the 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue. The songwriter conjured a carnival atmosphere with a cast of characters that included Joan Baez, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, poet Allen Ginsberg, actress Ronee Blakley, and playwright Sam Shepard, as well as a backing band featuring violinist Scarlet Rivera and guitarists Mick Ronson and T-Bone Burnett.
The traveling caravan would pick up such other notables as Joni Mitchell, Roger McGuinn and a not-yet-famous teenaged Sharon Stone. It included a benefit for then-imprisoned boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter during which Muhammad Ali hung out with Dylan backstage. It was a ramshackle operation.
The tour was booked as it went along, with Dylan himself often driving a Winnebago to venues much smaller than the arenas he had played the previous year with the Band. Rolling Thunder included stops at a prison, Native American reservation, and a mahjong parlor. There, Ginsberg read his poem “Kaddish,” about the death of his mother, Naomi, and Dylan sung a gorgeous “Simple Twist of Fate.”
Toward the start, Scorsese — who previously directed the mid-1960s Dylan doc No Direction Home in 2005— asks his subject to recall his memories of the tour.
“I don’t remember a thing about Rolling Thunder,” Dylan says in the documentary. “It happened so long ago I wasn’t even born yet.” Then, with impeccable comic timing, he politely asks: “So what do you want to know?”
Dylan fans could of course only answer that question with one word: “Everything.”
This Rolling Thunder moment doesn’t get us all the way there, but does come with outpouring of fresh information. In addition to the Netflix doc, there’s also the new The Rolling Thunder Revue: The 1975 Live Recordings (Columbia / Legacy *** ½).
That 14 CD box includes three revealing discs of rehearsals, and all five Dylan live shows, from the tour that were professionally recorded. Not to mention perceptively penned liner notes by Wesley Stace, the Philadelphia-based Englishman who’s spent much of his career performing as John Wesley Harding. (If you don’t want to splurge for the box, there’s a 10-song sampler that is available through streaming services, such as Spotify and Apple Music.)
Scorsese’s highly entertaining documentary — much of the footage was previously seen in Renaldo & Clara, the Dylan-directed, critically slammed 1978 film — tells the Rolling Thunder story with a theatrical flair in the revue’s carny barker spirit. Dylan usually performed while wearing white face makeup, and Baez occasionally dressed up as “Bob Dylan.”
But it’s not Baez who is Dylan’s costar. It’s violinist Rivera who is the key musical player on both Rolling Thunder and Desire, the album that was already recorded when the tour commenced — it wouldn’t be released until 1976.
Rivera’s haunting, human voice-echoing violin provided the bridge between Dylan’s folk rock songs and the romani — or gypsy — music that enthralled him. He had released his masterpiece Blood on the Tracks earlier that year, but instead of touring he attended a music festival in the south of France at which, he says, “One More Cup of Coffee” came to him in a dream.
The Rolling Thunder look was inspired by Japanese kabuki theater and Italian commedia dell’arte. But also a less exotic source, Dylan says: Gene Simmons of Kiss, whom Rivera was dating at the time.
It was also the Kiss shirt worn by a teenage Stone that caught Dylan’s eye. Soon, she was sewing shirts for Baez, and Dylan was telling her he wrote “Just Like a Woman” for her. Burnett broke the news that it was on Blonde on Blonde, a decade earlier.
“That tour didn’t have enough masks,” Dylan says of Rolling Thunder. “When somebody’s wearing a mask, he’s going to tell the truth. When he’s not wearing a mask, it’s highly unlikely.”
Themes of deception and illusion were on Dylan’s mind then, and Scorsese’s now. Reflecting the hall of mirrors motif, Scorsese says in the production notes to his film that “There’s a great deal of sleight-of-hand” at play in the story.
Case in point: Much is made in the movie of how Rolling Thunder happened in the middle of the 1970s, with America in crisis, with Richard Nixon’s resignation leading to the eventual election of Dylan fan Jimmy Carter.
A clip of Carter paraphrasing Dylan — “We have an America that in Bob Dylan’s phrase, is busy being born” — is included, as is a testimonial by former Congressman Jack Tanner.
Except that Jack Tanner is a fictional character played by actor Michael Murphy in the 1988 Garry Trudeau-Robert Altman mockumentary Tanner ’88. So Jack Tanner isn’t real. What else in Scorsese and Dylan’s telling is fake?
Rolling Thunder shows were a travelling circus, an improvisational enterprise in which the concertgoer didn’t know what was going to happen next. Many of the songs performed were new to the listener and Dylan threw talented people together to challenge each other in an unstructured environment.
That could produce greatness: Before the tour started there were inspired performances in Greenwich Village where Dylan is seen hanging out with Bette Midler, and a young Patti Smith steals the show.
» READ MORE: Watch: Patti Smith sings Bob Dylan at The Met
On the road, Mitchell shows the boys a thing or two with a stunning performance of the newly written “Coyote” with Dylan and McGuinn backing her at Gordon Lightfoot‘s house in Canada. A scene with Dylan and Ginsberg at Jack Kerouac’s grave in Lowell, Mass., is priceless.
But musician Steven Soles offers a darker view, comparing Rolling Thunder to the court of Henry VIII, with Dylan sycophants hoping to not get their heads chopped off. “Who will be the next Anne Boleyn?”
Many of the live performances on the box are exemplary, but the wildcat energy of the shows sometimes results in Dylan barreling through such saga songs as “Isis” with a ferociousness that leaves subtlety behind. The other flaw of the box is that it doesn’t bother to present any revue performers not named Bob Dylan. With 14 discs, you’d think there’d be room for that.
But the three rehearsal volumes are a treasure, as the band — known as Guam — works its way through Dylan’s capacious catalog and also the likes of Merle Travis‘ “Dark as a Dungeon” and the lovely Irish folk song “Easy and Slow.”
In a sense, Rolling Thunder was the beginning of Dylan’s Never Ending Tour, which didn’t officially begin until 1988 but carries on the road-goes-on-forever spirit. That lends itself to the idea of traveling troubadour, always in pursuit of a true self.
“Bob’s always been searching for something else,” the late Rubin Carter says. But Dylan the contrarian shoots down that idea of the singer-as-seeker, offering different sage advice. “Life isn’t about finding yourself, or finding anything,” the ever changing, busy being born singer says. “Life is about creating yourself.”
Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese
7 p.m. Tuesday, June 11, Philadelphia Film Center, 1412 Chestnut St., $13, 267-239-2941, www.filmadelphia.org/