by Ken Bakely
What does it mean to classify Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese? Like the legacy of the titular 1975–76 concert tour it chronicles, the film – through a mixture of concert footage shot by Howard Alk and David Myers, present-day interviews with the participants, and fictionalized context around the edges (such as a climactic tale featuring Jimmy Carter, told by Michael Murphy, reprising his role as Jack Tanner of Tanner ‘88) – captures a whole lot of feelings and moments in a way that feels particularly inspired and spontaneous. It defies linear expectations and operates as both closely felt and abstract at the same time, as you feel the music burst through the many sequences it’s featured in; Scorsese allows these performances to come at such a frequent but unstructured rate that they wrap around and become the film’s backbone as well as its primary aesthetic flavoring. It’s a hard-felt cultural retrospective as much as it is a dyed-in-the-wool concert video at the same time. There’s a balance between the two that isn’t always easy or even refined, but operates as a snapshot of the culture of the post-Watergate ’70s, a period that the film, in so many words, argues is defined by its lack of unified theory. It’s similarly broad and of free-form spirit. Even those of us who aren’t diehard Dylan devotees can find plenty to appreciate in its fine ability and blurring of reality and fantasy.
Even though Scorsese finds much to prune through in the myriad of approaches and formats that he pursues throughout Rolling Thunder Revue, he doesn’t try to analyze to the point of drawing firm conclusions on what the tour’s enigma signifies. As Dylan speculates in an interview, such a task is futile, and perhaps a similar truism applies to talking about the film. This is a deliberately felt two-and-a-half hours, as languid as the long list of names who accompanied Dylan on tour in various artistic roles – Joan Baez, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and Joni Mitchell, to name a few – and it rolls on, casually switching back between interviews, narratives, and performances. It almost feels like a revolutionary act to allow oneself to simply experience the proceedings in real time. We’re witnesses the further building of a mythology surrounding the revue. After all, the perfect ingredients for such constructions are there: a lot of footage, a lot of people discussing the impact it had on them and others, and a resolute lack of uncritical or objective analysis. For those less inclined to simply let everything happen as it will, this tends to make the film hang on for a bit, but Scorsese carries a clear mastery of how to keep an audience surprised, introducing new ideas and threads with a knowing energy that keeps a firm current going, even when we don’t feel it from the outset.
Except for Dylan, everyone – from real people, to exaggerated versions of them, to completely invented characters – is given a short descriptor in the credits (Patti Smith is “The Punk Poet,” Scarlett Rivera is “The Queen of Swords,” and Ronee Blakely is “The Ingénue”, etc.). This speaks to the film’s blend of myth and fact, where all come together and shed their baggage. They become one poetic whirlwind that seems like it could go on indefinitely, energized by its diversity of sources and stories to create this dream that may be want for totality, but exceeds in confidence. This entire enterprise is clearly interesting for Scorsese as an experiment, as he captures what has been written and said about the Rolling Thunder Revue and sees if he can both congregate and immortalize it on film. Whether he succeeds in making it something you can palpably feel and desire is largely dependent on if you buy into the concerts’ hype in the first place, but even the slightest benefit of the doubt towards the legend reaps substantial benefits, thanks to the evident skill involved in balancing all these deeply disparate ideas into a curated event. For those already disposed to the importance of Dylan’s unique observance of the American Bicentennial, this is likely to feel like a transcendent experience of the highest order: its immediate sensation of careful clutter disguises a more exact exercise of what it means to see the things that his music – or those of his many collaborators here – convey, in a visual format under the hand of another artist. But it’s an often-transfixing sprawl for everyone else as well. Rolling Thunder Revue takes the otherwise sturdy definitions of the concert film and breaks them down, without losing the sheer joy entailed of watching great musicians at work.