Play a Song for Me

Martin Scorsese Has Made the Great Bob Dylan Movie

What’s the meaning of the Rolling Thunder Revue? “It’s about nothing,” says septuagenarian Bob Dylan. “So what do you want to know?” We want to know everything. And that’s impossible, which is why virtuosic filmmaker Martin Scorsese has conjured up this heretically-faithful, wickedly-subversive musical extravaganza. Imagine The Last Waltz crossed with the lost reels of Greed by way of This Is Spinal Tap, with a quick pit stop into Tanner ’88. This is prankster mythologizing, shaman balladeering, and time-capsule reverie, all in the service of pure musical manna.

★★★★★(5/5 stars)
Directed by: Martin Scorcese
Starring: Bob Dylan, Allen Ginsberg, Joan Baez, Ronnie Hawkins, Sharon Stone
Running time: 142 min


In the fall of 1975, an arena-exhausted Dylan pared down his venues and toured with a traveling group of musicians through the small towns of America. The “questing jug band,” as one wag described it, was populated with an ad hoc assemblage of talent, including Joan Baez, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Joni Mitchell, Ronnie Hawkins, Ronee Blakely, and Roger McGuinn. Because a camera crew filmed their antics, Dylan figured they needed someone to write the movie, too, so he enlisted Sam Shepard. And gracing their adventure like a benediction was sanctified beatnik poet Allen Ginsberg.

Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg

It’s miraculous that so much footage exists of the Rolling Thunder Revue. The 16mm camera negative was reportedly lost, so all that existed was a beat-up, scratchy, faded work-print assembly of the raw material. Some of it ended up in a 4-hour experimental 1978 film that Dylan directed called Renaldo and Clara, but it otherwise went unused and unshaped. Now, thanks to modern-day 4k digital restoration techniques, as well as Scorsese’s influential name and the mighty windfall of Netflix money, the images were painstakingly scrubbed clean frame by frame. That archival revivification, coupled with the top-shelf professional recording equipment that preserved the audio from more than a few concert dates, insures that the performances in this film are absolutely stunning to see and hear.

You Don’t Need To Be A Superfan to Know Which Way the Wind Blows

This is Dylan road-testing tunes that appeared just a few months later on his January 1976 release Desire. And their freshness is revelatory. Watching Dylan tear into a blistering version of “Isis,” his face totally animated, his body jerking and writhing, his voice an urgent howl, is like hearing it for the first time. Same for “Mozambique” and “One More Cup of Coffee,” and I say that with authority because I am not a Dylan disciple and I was actually hearing those two songs for the very first time.

You don’t need to be a superfan to appreciate Rolling Thunder Revue. It might actually help if you’re not. Scorsese’s deeply loving tribute is also an essential big-tent entertainment which invites in neophytes and experts alike. But caveat emptor: this movie has a sly sense of humor about itself and a healthy skepticism about the rockumentary genre as a whole. It’s not for the dogmatic. In a way, Scorsese is sticking his finger in the eye of all those rigid Dylan ethnographers.

Tall tales get taller. Misdirections abound. Dylan famously wore whiteface during the revue, like some sort of reverse minstrelsy. Is that an homage to Kabuki theater? A nod to the melancholy clown in Marcel Carné’s Les Enfants du Paradis?  According to then-groupie Sharon Stone, Kiss inspired him to do it. Maybe it’s none of these. Maybe it’s all of them.

The Man Behind the Man Behind the Mask
Joan Baez and Bob Dylan in Martin Scorcese’s ‘Rolling Thunder Revue’.

Joan Baez even dressed up like Dylan, face paint and all, and conned the roadies and handlers into doing her bidding. Violinist Scarlet Rivera loved the theatricality of it all: not surprising, since the stunning young musician, mysteriously chauffeured in a Rolls-Royce, had a trunk full of chains and a snake, and carried around a sword. “Mr. Tambourine Man gives us the opportunity to be whoever we want to be,” she says. If you believe Dylan, interviewed here on camera for the first time in a decade, then there weren’t enough ways to change your identity. “When someone’s wearing a mask, they’ll tell you the truth,” he proffers cryptically.

Pop historians will love watching Dylan and Ginsberg visit Jack Kerouac’s grave, reciting his writings and playing the harmonium next to his tombstone. Political junkies will revel in hearing Jimmy Carter quote Dylan. And sentimentalists will savor the intimacy of a young concertgoer, post-show, standing with her eyes closed, stunned, overwhelmed, breaking into laughter and then into heaving sobs.

“We’re pilgrims,” says Ginsberg early on about the orchestrated anarchy that started in Plymouth, Mass, before moving restlessly through the country with Dylan himself driving the tour bus. Rolling Thunder Revue is about restless artists recharging their batteries, searching for connection and communion en route to inspiration. Joni Mitchell gets irritated because the crowds aren’t digging her decision to play only new material, and shrugs off the suggestion that she do a few hits. And then she launches into “Canyon” in a non-descript living room, with Dylan and Roger McGuinn enthusiastically playing back-up. Who cares about giving people what they think they want?

Scorsese knows this, too, and keeps reorienting Rolling Thunder Revue into new directions. The film’s inventiveness is a testament to its bold imagination. It’s a hard movie to describe, let alone define. Which is the point. As Dylan himself says, “Life isn’t about defining yourself. It’s about creating yourself.”

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Stephen Garrett

Stephen Garrett is the former film editor of 'Time Out New York’ and has written about the movie industry for more than 20 years. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer, Garrett is also the founder of Jump Cut, a marketing company that creates trailers and posters for independent, foreign-language, and documentary films.

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