Film Review: ROLLING THUNDER REVIEW (2019) DIR. MARTIN SCORSESE
As if this genre-defying quasi-documentary of Bob Dylan’s 1975 cross-country tour did not have enough built-in lunacy and no-holds barred musical and cultural synergy created by these merry pranksters along for the ride – Scorsese, editing together archival footage, embellishes it even more, injecting purely fictionalized characters and stories. This is important to remember in order not to feel clueless trying to follow it. In one of the opening scenes of Bob Dylan answering questions from an unidentified off-screen voice, presumably Scorsese, he says, “I don’t remember a thing about Rolling Thunder. It was forty years ago, before I was born.” Dylan tries to describe the purpose and goals that the tour wanted to accomplish, but he broke off mid-sentence, laughed and said: “What do you want to know?” Pure Bob Dylan – cryptic and enigmatic. Eschewing intent. Not giving away any secrets.
A general air of disillusionment post Watergate, and the ignominious end to the ugly and divisive Vietnam War allowed attention to be paid to social injustices across our own country. The Rolling Thunder tour seemed to be some vague attempt to reach out and touch people in the less well-travelled parts of America. They performed in small towns in smallish venues (as opposed to stadiums) including a jail and an old-folks home. Their advance team was pretty adhoc, passing out flyers a few days before a performance. They were clearly not operating under financial constraints. The mixed bag of itinerant performers included Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Alan Ginsburg, Patti Smith, Scarlet Rivera, T-Bone Burnett, Roger McGuinn, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliot. There were journalists, (Rolling Stone’s (Ratso Slomen) photographers, (cameraman Howard Alk, filming the tour for a film project of Dylan’s) and assorted camp followers, including an unlikely Sharon Stone and Sam Shepherd. They travelled in a bus driven by Dylan, detouring when the spirit moved them. Dylan and Ginsberg visited the grave of Jack Kerouac. It looks like they are having a great time. And when they take the stage these small town crowds are getting intimate stellar performances by this synergistic band of troubadors, the likes of which any of the more sophisticated audiences anywhere would have killed for.
The performances chronicled here are the best reason for this film. It is immersive, up-close and, personal. In the performance footage the camera records entire songs with Dylan, oddly and inexplicably, wearing white Kabuki makeup smeared on somewhat randomly with black eyeliner. (Not remotely comparable to Kiss, as Sharon Stone asserts.) Most riveting are his duets with Joan Baez which will bring goosebumps. Also fascinating to watch is the gorgeously spooky violinist Scarlet Rivera, who performs right next to Dylan on the stage. She is quoted in answer to the question about her outré costumes: “He allows us to be our most outrageous on stage”. He certainly does not appear to be a control freak about these performances. There is a freewheeling feeling of liberated, joyful anarchy.
Some of the contemporary interviews are especially fascinating, insightful and often funny. Joan Baez describing dressing herself as Dylan with the whiteface makeup and one of Dylan’s hats, tells how differently she was treated by the crew who totally bought her act. She actually performed dressed that way at one show. There is no actual explanation for the whiteface makeup, merely speculation. One of Dylan’s most intense and heartfelt songs, The Ballad of “Hurricane” Carter, based on the true story of middleweight prizefighter Ruben “Hurricane” Carter, wrongfully accused of a crime and sent to prison for years. Dylan championed the cause of freeing “Hurricane” and simultaneously focused a light on the ills of the criminal justice system. There is also footage of Dylan with Jimmy Carter, with whom the two seemed to have had a mutual admiration society. Carter totally bought Dylan’s relevance and genius, way ahead of the Nobel Committee. Who would have thought?
If you are a Dylan fan or merely curious - there is so much to love that is wonderful, which far outweighs any quibbles I might have with Scorsese or the film itself. So, I just won’t go there. It barely matters. This is a trip worth taking.