Martin Scorsese’s “Rolling Thunder Revue” documentary, over two hours of remarkable restored performance footage and backstage scenes from Bob Dylan’s legendary 1975 tour augmented by new interviews, closes on a curious barrage of on-screen text: a complete listing of every concert the celebrated singer-songwriter has played since his ramshackle caravan of musicians, artists, writers and poets took the East Coast by storm in the run-up to a turbulent America’s hotly hyped bicentennial.
The cities and dates clog the screen, and as you’re reminded how often Dylan’s played live over the last 40 years, you realize the significance of the Rolling Thunder tour: how its freewheeling jugband vibe and smaller, people-friendly venues reconnected Dylan — who had avoided live shows for eight years until 1974 — with the impossibly beautiful spark of live performance. And how when the setting feels right, your friends show up to do their thing (Joan Baez, Allen Ginsberg, Roger McGuinn), your band is in sync, and the flowers in your fedora are fresh, then the music needs to get out.
And what music: “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” “Isis,” “Simple Twist of Fate,” “Hurricane,” and many others, unleashed in memorably driving versions by Dylan and his Bob Neuwirth-assembled musicians, which included a young David Mansfield, T-Bone Burnett, and snake-tattooed violinist Scarlet Rivera. In these dynamic renditions, filmed with front-row intimacy by tour cinematographers, just the frisky light shining from Dylan’s eyes feels like one more humming chord.
But the off-tour jamming is equally memorable. There’s an early club scene of Patti Smith, with Dylan in attendance, howling out “Archers Song.” Later, on the tour bus, we hear everyone launch into a rousing rendition of “Love Potion No. 9.” At Gordon Lightfoot’s house, the cameraman finds a room where Joni Mitchell introduces “Coyote” to Dylan and McGuinn as a new, tour-inspired song, her strumming and singing of it like a majestic bird in rapturous flight.
Interviews with Baez, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Sam Shepard, Anne Waldman, Ronee Blakley, Rolling Stone reporter Larry “Ratso” Sloman, Paramount Pictures CEO Jim Gianopulos, Rubin “Hurricane” Carter and Sharon Stone (a teenage concert attendee) add color to the shambolic charm of Dylan’s traveling carnival, which seemed destined to enrapture fans who got headliner-studded shows, yet exasperate promoters who lost money because of Dylan’s insistence on halls and theaters instead of arenas and stadiums.
If Scorsese’s 2005 Dylan documentary “No Direction Home” was the exhaustive origins portrait that reveals how a man and myth were launched, “Rolling Thunder Revue” is the home movie party that energizes and humanizes while still preserving a counterculture god’s mystique. Interviewed on-camera for the first time in 10 years, Dylan wryly mutters that he doesn’t remember the tour — “I wasn’t even born,” he jokes — until subsequent details offered up seem to prove otherwise. On the whiteface and occasional donning of odd masks, Dylan notes, “When somebody is wearing a mask, he’s going to tell you the truth.”
But not all of “Rolling Thunder Revue” is truth, it turns out, which is Scorsese’s impish nod to the reinventing aura of Dylan’s ragtag cavalcade, which probably made the tour more American in spirit than any uber-patriotic bicentennial festivities. Some of the supposedly insider knowledge of the drama, magic and hoopla we hear are bits of fakery. One is clever, built on the provenance of the very footage Scorsese has repurposed (which Dylanologists will recognize as the building blocks for “Renaldo and Clara”), the other — a veteran actor revisiting a well-established part — less so. Scorsese isn’t terribly sneaky about it, since he kicks everything off with Georges Méliès’ 1896 silent magic film “The Vanishing Lady.” Dylan could certainly be his own disappearing act — someone who seemed there and not there, depending on his comfort level — and in the film Baez speaks of once dressing in Dylan’s stage get-up, to amusing results.
What’s real and what isn’t hardly matters, though, when the celebration is so inviting. It was a time, gloriously so, for music, camaraderie and creativity, one befitting the movie’s affectionate subtitle “A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese.”
‘Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese’
Running time: 2 hours, 22 minutes
Playing: Starts June 12, Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica; Vintage Los Feliz 3; also on Netflix