Martin Scorsese’s side career as a documentary filmmaker has largely been a verification of all the stuff anyone would suspect he adores, from the Rolling Stones to erudite New York institutions. A director with nothing truly left to prove, but also, as all evidence presented over the years indicates, a surplus of energy, Scorsese has regularly circled around to excavations of cultural touchstones and artists who enjoyed heydays in the latter half of the twentieth century. Music artists have been a regular source of fascination, including a lengthy film biography of George Harrison and Bob Dylan. nearly fifteen years after his first pass at the latter, Scorsese has returned to the most famous person to grow up in Hibbing, Minnesota.
As the title suggests, Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese narrows in on the icon’s mid-seventies tour of the same name, liberally employing rarely seen archival footage of both concerts and backstage shenanigans, and joining the old material with more current talking-head interviews. The Rolling Thunder Revue was set up as a traveling jamboree, with a fleet of other famed performers — Joan Baez among them — sharing the stage and a freewheeling air about it. Dylan insisted on smaller venues and less typical towns, perhaps to revitalize his people’s poet persona or maybe to lessen the pressure since it had been almost a decade since he’d toured as the clear main attraction. Regardless of the motivation, the vibe of the tour was a fine match with the post-Watergate U.S., marked by confusion and a sense of irreparable rupture to all sorts of norms. The circus was arriving to entertain the rabble as the ship went down.
Scorsese opens the documentary with vintage footage of a magician performing an illusion, aided mightily by obvious camera trickery. That’s the throat-clearing warning that not all is at it seems. Dylan has been a expert myth-maker at least since the day he decided the first name of a revered Welsh poet would serve him better that his given surname of Zimmerman. Scorsese’s documentary follows the model, sprinkling in completely fabricated details in the modern reminisces, up to and including the casting of actors to portray certain key figures in the carousing caravan. If it seems like too wild a coincidence that one of the stars of Scorsese’s Casino had a previously undisclosed stint as a hanger-on member of Dylan’s troupe, well, that’s a sound instinct. And Dylan’s corroborating testimony can be disregarded by the jury.
If the folderol of fictions had a clear purpose — if it were indeed commenting on Dylan’s propensity for tall tales and image building, or were being held up as a mirror to the vaudevillian looseness to which the Revue alluded — the choice would be sound, or at least reasonable. Instead, it’s wan nonsense that distracts from the solid pleasures of the unearthed film of the tour. Dylan led the musicians and fellow artists he assembled with a ferocious sense of purpose, and Scorsese is characteristically unerring in his skillful deployment of music. He gives the performances the time to register deeply, as with the blazing version of “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” and “Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” which lands like a deluge of blows. Equally winning moments are found away from the spotlight, as Joni Mitchell runs through her new song “Coyote” backstage or an assemblage of punch-drunk music makers harmonize on an impromptu “Love Potion No. 9” in the narrow hall of the tour RV.
Why Scorsese and his cohorts feel the need to incorporate doses of flim-flam is a mystery to me. To my eyes, the older, authentic footage includes more than enough to divert, dazzle, and delight.