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Martin Scorsese’s Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story – backstage on rock’s greatest road trip

'When somebody’s wearing a mask, he’s gonna tell you the truth': Bob Dylan during the Rolling Thunder Review in 1975
'When somebody’s wearing a mask, he’s gonna tell you the truth': Bob Dylan during the Rolling Thunder Review in 1975 Credit: Getty/Ken Regan

Martin Scorsese’s new film opens with a clip from the 1896 short The Vanishing Lady, in which the pioneering director Georges Méliès makes a woman disappear in front of our very eyes. It is a hint of the magic and mischief to follow in Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story, in which America’s greatest living film-maker turns his lens on America’s greatest living singer-songwriter to thrilling, illuminating and sometimes confounding effect. 

The Rolling Thunder Revue has gone down in rock history as one of the greatest shows ever staged, although it was seen by relatively few people at the time. In October 1975, an inspired 34-year-old Dylan took a raggle-taggle band of folkies, poets, film-makers, playwrights and rockers on a barnstorming tour of the American north-east, playing just 31 concerts in community halls, theatres, gyms, a native American reservation and high-security prison. His troupe of 70 musicians, crew and hangers-on included folk queen Joan Baez, Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, firebrand dramatist Sam Shepard and the luminous Joni Mitchell. Dylan’s wife and muse Sara, their four young children, his widowed mother Beatty Zimmerman and even his pet beagle Peggy all came along for the ride, the merry travellers piling into two buses and a Winnebago often driven by Dylan himself.

The tour opened at the War Memorial Auditorium in Plymouth, Massachusetts, where the Pilgrims of the Mayflower landed in 1620. As Ginsberg idealistically proclaimed, Dylan’s ensemble were “trying to recover America”. The nation had already begun celebrating its 1976 bicentennial, hoping to heal the wounds of Vietnam and Watergate. Dylan had rediscovered the protest spirit of his early folk years and was campaigning for the release from prison of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, a boxer framed for murder. Every night, Dylan tore into his fierce new single Hurricane, spitting out his shame “to live in a land where justice is a game”.

Yet the mood of these extraordinary shows was not overtly political. It was magical and carnivalesque, a night of roots music delivered with a theatrical flourish by a parade of shifting performers. In a flower-bedecked gaucho hat and white face paint, Dylan stalked the stage with the exaggerated movements of a deranged mime, delivering extravagantly reconfigured classics and songs of flaming passion from his as-yet-unreleased album Desire. Sometimes there might be as many as six guitarists wailing away; other times, it was just Dylan strumming an acoustic, gazing into the eyes of his former lover Joan Baez, dressed as his mirror image, the king and queen of folk reunited in playful duets.

Every night ended with the ensemble leading enraptured audiences in a singalong of Woody Guthrie’s This Land Is Your Land. “Old friends who thought their love had been lost were able to face each other eye to eye and sing to please myriad young yearners seeking some form of community,” is how the florid Ginsberg summed up the utopian spirit.

Dylan on stage with Joan Baez Credit: Ken Regan

Facing Scorsese’s camera, Dylan, who turned 78 yesterday, himself seems much less certain of what it was all about. “I don’t remember a thing about Rolling Thunder,” he jokes. “It happened so long ago I wasn’t even born.” The interview that ensues suggests his amnesia is selective. Intercut with riveting concert footage, candid backstage scenes, news footage and newly filmed interviews with a handful of significant characters, the old troubadour provides funny, profound and occasionally cruel insights, seeded with playful fabrications and what might best be described as barefaced lies.

Asked the meaning of the masks he often wore on stage, Dylan responds: “When somebody’s wearing a mask, he’s gonna tell you the truth.” And then mischievously adds: “When he’s not wearing a mask, it’s highly unlikely.”

Provocatively riddled with omissions, embellishments and outright inventions, what Dylan and Scorsese have concocted is a kind of documentary fiction, an unreliable narrative blurring timelines, creating characters and twisting events to convey something of the carnival spirit of the original tour. It is closely allied to a film Dylan himself was making during Rolling Thunder, an improvised, dreamlike, pretentiously impenetrable four-hour mix of fictional vignettes, cinema verité footage and performance clips called Renaldo and Clara, released to scathing reviews in 1978. “I know this film is too long,” Dylan said at the time. “It may be four hours too long.”

Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese Credit: Ken Regan

Dylan’s directorial ambitions came to an end with his misguided vanity project. However, 80 hours of film were shot during six weeks on the road in 1975, from which master film-maker Scorsese has constructed something closer to Dylan’s original intention, “to cut up reality and make it more real”.

Scorsese has worked with Dylan before, repurposing footage from his underground experimental film Eat the Document (shot on his 1966 British tour) into a conventional biographical documentary, No Direction Home, in 2005. This time, though, the director has adopted Dylan’s more creatively fluid relationship with the truth. There is, accordingly, no mention of the filming of Renaldo and Clara. Dylan’s ex-wife Sara has been entirely excised from the narrative, in an echo of Méliès’s vanishing lady. You can’t be certain if a nervous conversation between Dylan and Baez about relationships is being overheard or staged (“I married the woman I love,” insists Dylan. “That’s true,” agrees Baez. “I married the man I thought I loved.”)

There are only vague hints of the backstage carnage that inevitably accompanied a tribe of bohemians on the road in the disco Seventies, where heavy drinking and copious cocaine consumption reportedly fuelled jealousies and tensions at odds with their utopian ideals. Dylan’s already precarious marriage to Sara was coming to a bitter end, and by the time the core members reconvened in April 1976 for a money-spinning second stadium leg, Dylan’s mood had darkened and everything changed: set list, personnel, arrangements, costumes and even vocal style (as can be heard on fierce 1976 live album, Hard Rain). This, however, is not the story Scorsese has chosen to tell.

Dylan in a scene from Rolling Thunder Revue Credit: Ken Regan

As an ever-expanding library of biographies and critical studies attest, it is in the nature of Dylan’s complex art that it can be approached from myriad angles. Scorsese’s dazzling film touches on an array of perspectives on Rolling Thunder: Dylan’s fascination with commedia dell’arte; the inspiration of Marcel Carné’s 1945 classic of French cinema, Les Enfants du Paradis; his collaboration with theatre director Jacques Levy. Scenes with Ginsberg reading poetry at Jack Kerouac’s grave in Lowell, Massachusetts, place Dylan in an American bardic tradition stretching back to Walt Whitman. “Today’s poets don’t reach into the public consciousness that way,” notes the older Dylan. “Nowadays people remember lines from songs.”

Most of all, Scorsese’s film illuminates a moment when Dylan, a global star at the height of his powers, was eager to reconnect with old friends and pay something back to the folk community that gave him his first platform. There are wonderful scenes in his old Greenwich Village haunts, watching performances at folk club The Bitter End, and deep in conversation with a wired young Patti Smith. There are singalongs in buses and backstage rooms. At a drunken party, Joni Mitchell, calling out chords to Dylan on guitar, performs her future classic Coyote, said to have been written on the tour after an affair with Sam Shepard.

The flirtatious yet wary relationship between Dylan and Baez provides a fascinating current of tension. “When I met her, it seemed like she’d come down to earth from a meteorite, and she’s never changed,” says Dylan, still mystified by the great folk beauty who rarely misses an opportunity to tease and provoke her ex. Yet despite her ambiguous feelings, Baez admits: “Everything is forgiven when I hear Bob sing.” Their performances together of Blowin’ in the Wind and I Shall Be Released are transcendent. “Joan Baez and me, we could sing together in our sleep,” notes Dylan.

Dylan (centre, wearing hat) on stage with fellow performers Credit: Ken Regan

Scorsese’s film sketches the political backdrop in broad strokes. In an interview, “Hurricane” Carter (who was eventually exonerated after 20 years in jail) characterises Dylan as an eternal seeker. “[Carter would] always say ‘what are you searching for?’” recalls Dylan. “I’d say, ‘Hurricane, I’m searching for the holy grail. I’m gonna search until I find it, like Sir Galahad.’” Yet Dylan also baldly states: “Life isn’t about finding yourself or finding anything. Life is about creating things.”

Ultimately, this film is another act of creation in Dylan’s expansive canon, with a slyly self-mocking narrative that will intrigue even those sceptical of his appeal. At its heart are restored clips of Dylan singing and playing with an openness and expressiveness that, for whatever reason, he would never fully exhibit on stage again. With each successive tour over four decades, his stage persona has become more guarded and cryptic, while cigarettes and time took their toll on his voice. But here, performing for a righteous cause with a fantastic band of peers, his joy and exhilaration is infectious.

Viewers are treated to an electrifying five-minute gallop through Isis, a thunderous melodrama of separation, desperation, adventure and reunion between a wayward husband and mystical wife. Roaming the stage without a guitar, fists clenched, Dylan conducts his band through a series of frenzied climaxes. His deadpan introduction might be interpreted as a guide to all that unfolds in Scorsese’s mischievous account of the Rolling Thunder Revue. “This is a true story you’re about to hear,” he proclaims. “It happens to everyone.”

Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story is on Netflix and in cinemas on June 12. The 1975 Live Recordings 14-CD box set (Columbia) is out on June 7