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Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese: Criterion Collection
There are a lot of things that Martin Scorsese's Rolling Thunder Revue (full onscreen title: "Conjuring the Rolling Thunder Re-vue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese") is not. It is not a sequel to No Direction Home, Scorsese's extremely thorough look at Bob Dylan's '60s breakthrough. It is not a straight documentary about the mid-'70s Rolling Thunder Revue tour that Dylan mounted. (The loose narrative of the film is partially shaped by a few fictional characters and real people telling fictional anecdotes.) It is not (quite) a redux of Dylan's famously buried 4-hour documentary/drama hybrid, Renaldo and Clara, which was filmed during the tour we see documented here.
So what is it? Well, that's not so easy to pin down.
When Rolling Thunder Revue debuted on Netflix in 2019, the media reaction was dominated by perturbed critics and journalists who wondered why their cinematic hero would embroider his documentary with make-'em-ups. And why did Dylan play along? Haven't we had enough fake news?! could be an apt summation of these pieces. (Others, of course, did not get the memo, and wrote articles based on the belief that everything in the film was real.)
I'll admit that this silly outrage about falsified history kept me from pushing play on Rolling Thunder Revue when it debuted, despite being a big fan of Scorsese and Dylan. And now that I've seen the film, I feel sad that I stayed away. The heart of Rolling Thunder Revue is the vintage footage, showing Dylan at a tangible creative apex, looking more comfortable than he had before or has since, surrounded by a veritable circus of beat-folkie-hippie celebs, soon-to-be cult heroes, and unknown musical ringers. The electrifying performance footage is clearly the film's raison d'être... but what's the story?
Scorsese's best-known music film, The Last Waltz, is essentially just a concert highlight reel, but even there the filmmaker gives the audience a story: a band reflects on its history after they decide to call it quits. Rolling Thunder Revue's backstory isn't so clear-cut. Dylan had been away from live performance for years, and he decided to create a traveling communal-theatrical experience rather than a boring old rock show. It's not nothing, but there aren't really "stakes," to borrow a popular screenwriting buzzword. If the tour flopped in 1975 -- which it kind of did -- it was no biggie. There would be other tours.
Scorsese and his editors instead try to create a snapshot of the times. Throughout, they evoke American culture's post-Vietnam/Bicentennial-era malaise as it gives way to the idealism of a Dylan-quoting Jimmy Carter. Into this landscape, Dylan set out with his band (which included guitar hero Mick Ronson and future mega-producer T Bone Burnett), some rotating guest stars (like Joan Baez, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Joni Mitchell, Roger McGuinn, Ronee Blakley, and Bob Neuwirth), and some literary heavyweights (Allen Ginsberg and Sam Shepard). They played smaller towns and smaller venues than one would expect for a superstar tour -- which might have actually been mismanagement by Dylan's inexperienced promoter, although the film's narrative describes this as a feature, not a bug of the venture.
Dylan had also decided to document the tour, for what would eventually become the previously mentioned film maudit, Renaldo and Clara. Maybe due to Dylan's reticence to talk about that film, or maybe because it would unnecessarily pull focus, Scorsese concocts another reason why there was so much footage of the Rolling Thunder Revue: there was a slightly self-important European documentary filmmaker who attached himself like a leech to Dylan in this era.
Played by Martin von Haselberg, of the performance art duo The Kipper Kids, the filmmaker Stefan van Dorp is placed Zelig-like into the old footage, mostly in the form of off-camera remarks that sound conspicuously overdubbed. von Haselberg never overplays his hand by going for obvious jokes in his modern-day interviews, which might be why so many viewers without a degree in Dylanology accept him as the genuine article. But, like those vocal overdubs, one could argue that Scorsese lets the seams show just enough in regard to van Dorp that keen-eyed and -eared viewers can key into the gag. Excerpted clips of van Dorp's "earlier work," which includes wax figures of American presidents, are just straight-faced goofy enough that Scorsese almost gives the game away right there. However, elsewhere a Sam Shepard soundbite about how "he" brought Shepard on the tour to be a dramaturg for the film is cleverly edited to make us reasonably think the writer means van Dorp when most likely he meant Dylan. Shepard, one presumes, was not in on the joke.
Other put-ons in the film -- like the now-infamous story thread where Sharon Stone claims she tagged along on the tour at age 19, or a testimonial by Robert Altman- and Garry Trudeau-created politician Jack Tanner -- appear to serve both practical and thematic means.
If the self-important filmmaker is a familiar archetype, so too is the idealistic groupie (or, even more broadly, the kid who is seduced into running away with the circus). While Sharon Stone might not have really been there, who's to say that she isn't a stand-in for other people who were just like the character she is pretending to be? Whether she is an identity-concealing mouthpiece for legit Rolling Thunder tour lore or a total fabrication, it's hard to deny that her piece of the narrative puzzle is comforting to viewers in the way that Almost Famous can be.
Similarly, Jack Tanner's awestruck reaction to his first hearing of Dylan's "Hurricane," speaks to how the tour's passion and creativity provided a balm, some hope, and a reason to push on in politically murky times. On the other hand, savvy viewers know that, in real life, "Hurricane" hit the Top 40 but failed to free Rubin "Hurricane" Carter (that came a decade later, after much legal wrangling) and, in fiction, Jack Tanner's idealism made him a perpetually ineffectual outsider in U.S. politics.
It doesn't seem like a put-on then, when Dylan comments in a new interview that the tour's legacy is "ashes." The Rolling Thunder Revue didn't change the world; it just gave some brilliant people a chance to be creative and play some kickass tunes.
That's not a terrible reason to make a movie, and there have been plenty of good but ultimately unremarkable rock docs in this vein (Festival Express comes to mind). Rolling Thunder Revue is a far more interesting and provocative film for emphasizing the mythic qualities of its subjects while covertly deflating that self-aggrandizing bullshit using precisely the same methods.
Rolling Thunder Revue comes in a spiffy digipak with a slipcover. A generous booklet is included featuring an essay by Dana Spiotta, as well as excerpts from works by Sam Shepard, Allen Ginsberg, and Anne Waldman, inspired by the tour.
Considering that the majority of this AVC-encoded 1080p 1.78:1 (multi-aspect-ratio) presentation is sourced from poorly preserved workprint film footage, this looks jaw-droppingly good. The restoration featurette (see Special Features below) is relatively mum about how exactly the colors were restored and the damage repaired, but you would never know the vintage footage wasn't sourced from a negative. The new interview segments are cleanly and crisply shot by the great Ellen Kuras. The high-bitrate encode reveals all sorts of detail and satisfying film grain that don't always come across on the Netflix stream.
The DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround mix is outstanding, with the concert sequences really given a detailed and enveloping treatment. Some of the vintage offstage material is hampered by the limitations of the original recordings, but not in an unexpected or jarring way. An optional English SDH track is provided.
(HD, 16:59) - Scorsese discusses how the film came together, pointing to Kiarostami's Close-Up as thematic inspiration for the blending of fact and fiction in the service of a different kind of truth.
Scorsese takes a page from the Werner Herzog playbook and finds a way to locate the truth in a story without worrying too much about facts. Purists may balk (and already have) but the narrative Scorsese, Dylan & Co. have constructed around the stellar concert footage featured in Rolling Thunder Revue is no doubt the punch-up this myth deserves. As such, the extras aren't as forthcoming about the hows and whys of the storytelling flim-flammery as they might be. The technical presentation more than makes up for that. Highly Recommended.
Justin Remer is a filmmaker, oddball musician, and frequent wearer of beards. His new single, Don\'t Depend on Me, is now available to stream or download on Bandcamp, Spotify, Amazon, Apple, and wherever else fine music is enjoyed.