Skip to main content
A Magazine for

Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story

547 1562578089

Martin Scorsese examines American myth-making in this hypnotic documentary about Bob Dylan's unsuccessful 1975 tour mysteriously titled 'Rolling Thunder Revue'. This strange tag has been a source of contention for many years. A Native American phrase meaning "speaking the truth"? A reference to a US air raid on Vietnam? Or simply inspired by a passing storm Dylan observed? "Rolling Thunder was about nothing", Dylan states dismissively in his first on-camera interview in over a decade.

This interview is interesting for how remarkably tame its setting is. One of America's modern legends is framed casually in a dimly lit room. He disinterestedly reflects on a tour he orchestrated decades ago, and seems either unaware or unbothered by the gravity of his own life's journey and that of the shows this insightful film looks at. Dylan invited a wide range of artists and collaborators, from Joan Baez to Allen Ginsberg, and drove them to small, intimate venues. These low-key shows were meant to close the gap between Dylan the untouchable star and the people his music had touched. Not a profitable idea, but an inspired one nevertheless.

Film-maker Stefan van Dorp diligently captured the Rolling Thunder tour in 1975, and his plethora of footage is a remarkable artefact. It eyes Dylan from afar, but struggles to get close to him. Scorsese understands the loneliness in stardom as he assembles footage of Dylan's backstage orbit of artists, moneymen and hangers-on. Fellow performer Ronee Blakely explains why on some occasions she treated Dylan coolly. "I had to treat him like a regular person if I was gonna be friends with him", she says, refusing to succumb to the starstruck idolatry that others affected towards him.

And Dylan does seem to withdraw from their adoration into enigmatic reclusiveness, all reticence and guardedness, except when on stage. During the tour he wore white kabuki make-up (inspired by seeing a KISS concert) and sometimes even a face mask. Scorsese leaves many of these performances uninterrupted, zooming close into Dylan's face as he sings 'Mr. Tambourine Man' and 'Hurricane' as if trying to decipher him. These unbroken and patient stretches of pure concert have an entrancing effect, and Dylan seems most liberated here. But although he humbly tries to escape his icon status with makeup and face masks, it's Bob Dylan the superhero playing to these tiny venues. And that's why in the footage of the performances Scorsese holds up Dylan like a statue: he illustrates our need to believe in something.

This was a precarious moment in America's history, when what the country needed was hope and humility. The Vietnam war, the end of Nixon's presidency and Rubin Carter's false imprisonment - famously the basis for Dylan's ballad 'Hurricane'- all left the United States ripe for self-reflection. No-one knows America's underbelly like Scorsese. From Mean Streets and Taxi Driver to The Wolf of Wall Street, his scorching, unflinching eye toward Americana's darkest and most violent truths makes for a keen match to Dylan's humanistic protests.

He's clearly an avid Dylan enthusiast, and has as much fun assembling the footage as the viewer will watching it. His passion for the music and what it represents is palpable. It's written in the tears on a young woman's face as a concert ends, in a touching detour to Jack Kerouac's grave, and in the quiet, dusty roads that Dylan leads the tour bus through, seeing America from the eyes of the not-so-masses.

Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story is out now on Netflix.

More Film

Food in Film

Film has long celebrated food, from the passion and craft of making to the joy of eating. The Showroom Cinema’s Young Audiences Coordinator, Linnea Pettersson, shares her favourites.

Showroom Cinema opens its doors

Much-loved independent cinema reopens this month to bring cinema-goers a fine selection of films from Sheffield Doc/Fest, Celluloid Screams & the London Film Festival.

More Film