Review: Rolling Thunder Revue

Published

Credit: Netflix

Anita Katsarska
Writer

Martin Scorsese revisits Bob Dylan in a mystical new film that refutes every possible classification.

A politician has his platform. Bob Dylan has his stage. While the former could pose lies as sincerity, the latter sings sincere statements through enigmas. As the microphone devours their words and directs them to the nation, which will win America?

In its most basic description, Martin Scorsese’s documentary Rolling Thunder Revue is a visual exhibition of a series of concerts Bob Dylan did in collaboration with other musicians, poets, artists, and devotees to the musical industry nine years after he had officially stopped touring in 1966. However, there is more than one surprise in the partially truthful documentary hidden between the layers of songs, old footage, and new interviews. Thus, the film poses a challenge to its audience: to dig the Easter eggs out.

Rolling Thunder Revue flickers between truth and fabrication so frequently that you can’t quite grasp which is which. If you want to know what the Rolling Thunder Revue tour that Bob Dylan undertook in 1975-1976 was about, then you might not need to watch Scorsese’s take on it. Early in the documentary, Bob Dylan himself tries to come up with an explanatory view on the East Coast concerts. He fails, and absurdly says: “Nothing”. The Rolling Thunder Revue was about nothing. Juggling carefully with the assumptions, I would guess that in the world of Dylan’s mind, the Rolling Thunder Revue tour has lived its time in the past and, therefore, there is no need for it to be brought back into today’s climate. But, oh, are we stubborn to look deep into the bright photograph of the faded past.

The few intended factual errors that I will leave you to discover for yourself, make the films’ claims for authenticity on its own behalf seem almost hypocritical. How could one trust and choose the side of the troubadours when they are wearing masks, both metaphorically on the different stages throughout the tour and literally during performances?

I have already mentioned synonyms and derivatives of the word “truth” several times, and it might appear confusing, as if the film wants to disorient the spectator and make him believe in things that did not happen. One might wonder what Scorsese’s intention behind such filmmaking tropes was. Maybe the answer, in Dylan’s enigmatic fashion, is: “No intention.”

Yet, the two hours and 22 minutes do not feel like a betrayal. What the director conveys is the energy of the community that the gigs generated for both musicians and listeners. As Bob suggests, in such rewarding relationships with art, you don’t find yourself – you create yourself. The film focuses not only on the journey of the Nobel Prize-winner, but instead portrays the experience of each participant in the tour, an egalitarian approach which makes it so fascinating. Through interviews, the story reminds us that personal meditation and development of the individual consciousness are the golden tickets to a stable community – a lesson we may have forgotten today in our persistent hunt for permanent collective values.

Thus we learn how the people on stage wearing their masks, performing and openly lying, paradoxically tell the absolute capital truth about what the nation needs. Scorsese has chosen a captivating and impactful technique of editing; he consistently places footage of Nixon in opposition to the members of the Rolling Thunder Revue. The first scene reminisces on the celebration of the United States Bicentennial and introduces the question: “Do you feel patriotic?” amidst images of post-Vietnam War America. Then, the film drags the phrase throughout its entire duration until the word “patriotic” loses its fixed shape.

The first time we see Bob Dylan, he looks like a kid that has rummaged through his great aunt’s closet more than he does like an American patriot – white paint on his face, mismatching clothes, and a hat from which dead flowers hang like the Gardens of Babylon. But then, what does it mean to be an American patriot? Is it dressing up like Uncle Sam and placing your hand over your heart when you hear the national anthem? Or is it going against everything that the American politics represented in the 1970s with a chest full of youthful, rebellious spirit? Without even a drop of American blood in my veins, I could tell that what is patriotic is this monumental figure of folk wisdom, collecting dead flowers in his hat, singing about singing. With no American flag in sight.

Rolling Thunder Revue sets the mind of the viewer to high expectations because two seemingly different geniuses (Scorsese and Dylan) come together to tell a story. A lyrical narrative about the pilgrims looking to find “the kingdom of the nation”. What they deliver to the viewer, regardless of cultural background or historical moment, is a sense of togetherness and redemption.