Early on in Martin Scorsese’s new Netflix documentary “Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story” we are told that the term “Rolling Thunder” was considered by the Native Americans to mean “Speaking the Truth.” Well, after 2 hours and 22 minutes, it is the epic live concert footage that tells the truth. Not the clumsy Bob Dylan/Martin Scorsese story.
The Rolling Thunder Revue was conceived by Dylan to be an old-time traveling road show. After completing a huge stadium tour with The Band in 1974, he was tired of the rock star adulation. Dylan was looking for intimacy and connection which is why Rolling Thunder was held in what appears in the movie to be high school gyms and auditoriums. Everything was scaled down including the amenities. Some scenes show Bob Dylan himself driving the tour bus…that’s right, a tour bus. It’s incredible to imagine the excess of 1970’s rock stars like Led Zeppelin who owned their own plane while Bob Dylan was driving a tour bus down the Massachusetts Turnpike.
The narrative parts of the film are bizarre to say the least. Did a young Sharon Stone join the tour? No. Did her KISS t-shirt inspire Dylan’s white face paint? No. Did “filmmaker” Stefan Van Dorp capture all of the original footage from 1975? No.Why Scorsese and Dylan decided to go this route I don’t know. Naturally it could just be Dylan trying to have fun with the audience by telling absurd stories. These stories could be amusing if not for the fact they fall in between some mesmerizing stage performances by Dylan as well as some heavy political issues he was dealing with such as his visit with the Iroquois Nation and his crusade to free Rubin “Hurricane” Carter from prison. Scorsese has also been down this road before with a documentary not exactly portraying reality. His classic “The Last Waltz”, the final concert of The Band which also featured Dylan, was a work of fiction. Although it was billed as their final concert it was widely known that the members, especially Levon Helm, did not want to break up The Band and hated working on the film. The concert was really what made that film and the same goes for “Rolling Thunder.”
The idea to show full songs in the concert footage was a brilliant move by Scorsese. Dylan, in white face paint and peacock feather in his hat is haunting. He screams and scowls on songs like “Isis” and does an excellent up-tempo version of “Just Like A Woman.” “Hurricane”, intercut with the story and footage of Rubin Carter is intense. Dylan’s performance is filled with rage and should remind all viewers that sadly the song is still topical 40 years later. The scenes of Joan Baez and Dylan singing together are timeless and as usual Baez has no problem deferring to Bob but still showing immense grace and power.
In the film Bob Dylan says “If someone’s wearing a mask, he’s gonna tell you the truth. If he’s not wearing a mask, it’s highly unlikely.” This quote may encapsule not just the film but also the Rolling Thunder Revue itself. While the “Bob Dylan Story” is told by Bob, unmasked, telling stories that he admits he “can’t remember”, the “Rolling Thunder Revue” was Bob Dylan, on stage, sometimes wearing a mask, sometimes not, but always “speaking the truth.”