See Bob Dylan at his most enigmatic in Scorsese’s ‘Rolling Thunder Revue’
Bob Dylan has always been a mercurial character, to the point that he even described the tone he was striving to achieve on 1966’s “Blonde on Blonde” album as a “thin, wild, mercury sound.”
So it makes perfect sense that “Rolling Thunder Revue,” Martin Scorsese’s kind-of-sort-of documentary about Dylan’s 1975 tour of the same name, blends fact and fiction in the same way Dylan has been known to do in both his lyrics and his interviews.
Why is an actor pretending to be “Stefan Van Dorp,” a fictional filmmaker who claims to be responsible for much of the archival footage behind the scenes during the tour? Why is Paramount Pictures exec Jim Gianopulos pretending to be “Jim Gianopoulos,” a fictional tour manager for the Rolling Thunder Revue? Why are random clips from Dylan’s utterly strange film “Renaldo and Clara” inserted and presented as documentary footage?
Why does Sharon Stone subtly hint that she and Dylan had a love affair when she hadn’t even reached the age of 20 yet?
It’s all kind of baffling, just like the tour itself.
What is not in dispute is that Dylan — ragged and tired from a large-scale 1974 tour with The Band backing him — decided to take his next outing in a completely different direction. He assembled a massive band, his longtime friend Joan Baez, poet Allen Ginsberg and a ragtag band of additional folks and hit the road to present a three-hour revue.
And instead of playing the 10,000-20,000-seat venues that his fame commanded, the Rolling Thunder Revue was staged at smaller theaters throughout the U.S., in much the same way that a traditional traveling performance revue would be.
Even the fictional “Jim Gianopulos” is probably right that the tour was not a financial success.
In addition, much of Dylan’s setlist was comprised of the tunes from 1976’s “Desire,” a record that hadn’t come out yet. For a dozen or so dates, Joni Mitchell joined the tour and she approached her sets the same way, playing brand-new songs that no one recognized.
“I’m trying to get at the core of what the Rolling Thunder Revue was,” present-day Dylan says during one of many interview segments. “But it was just something that happened 40 years ago.” And then, in typical Dylan fashion, he tosses in, “I wasn’t even born yet.”
What’s most noteworthy is the ferocity with which Dylan attacked his performances. Donning weird white greasepaint on his face and jamming half a jar of potpourri into his hatband, Dylan tears into the songs from “Desire” during a feast of live concert footage. A segment exploring his relationship with wrongly imprisoned boxer Rubin Carter — which led to Dylan writing the song “Hurricane” as part of the successful effort to get Rubin exonerated — is particularly interesting, inter-cutting Dylan and Carter interviews with footage from an early performance of the song.
Even the sound of the band is a wild departure from most of Dylan’s previous work. Employing a big electric band that also included the intimate melodies of violinist Scarlet Rivera, there’s a psychedelic sheen to the tunes that’s made all the more bizarre by Dylan’s makeup, which seems to emphasize the way his eyes squint and flit around while he sings.
You get an excellent sense of just what an enigma Dylan must have been to young and old alike, watching him shout the stream-of-consciousness lyrics to “Isis,” each verse ending with a descent into madness as every band member seems to take a solo at the same time.
Is it an accurate picture of the tour? Not really, considering all of the mockumentary accoutrements that keep popping up.
But it’s a very interesting portrait of a very interesting period for one of America’s most interesting and enduring artists.
“Rolling Thunder Revue” is available on Netflix.
Patrick Varine is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Patrick at 724-850-2862, [email protected] or via Twitter .