Review: Rolling Thunder Revue on Netflix

Martin Scorsese has released a second documentary on Bob Dylan, 14 years after No Direction Home. This documentary, focuses on Bob Dylan’s 1975 tour, Rolling Thunder Revue. There are a few surprising things about it so if you don’t want any spoilers, you might want to wait to read this (or only just read the first part of this article) because we’re diving into this documentary and the importance of this concert tour. Keep on reading if you want to know if this is worth the watch.

What is Rolling Thunder Revue?

If you’re a casual listener/fan of Bob Dylan, like I am, you’re probably wondering what’s Rolling Thunder Revue and why a whole documentary about it?

Between the years 1966 (when he got into a motorcycle accident) and 1974 Bob Dylan did not tour. He released albums and continued writing songs, but he didn’t tour until 1974, when he toured with The Band.

He wanted to do something different on this tour. With America’s bicentennial coming up, he wanted to go to smaller towns on the East Coast and in the South and play shows in these smaller venues for a more intimate environment. Some parts of America were going through economic hardship and it costs a lot of money to see a show so he wanted to play shows in more out of the way places so fans in these areas had access.

Looking at the flyers, tickets were between $7.50 and $8.50, so that’s between $35-40 in today’s money. Considering Joan Baez, Roger McGuinn, Joni Mitchell, Ronee Blakely, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott were there too, that’s a bargain! Surprisingly, David Bowie’s guitarist Mick Ronson was part of the tour. Patti Smith and Bruce Springsteen were invited, but turned it down because Patti Smith wasn’t interested in doing country/folk and Bruce Springsteen’s career was taking off with a humble little album you may know, Born to Run.

He was feeling inspired in this era and wanted to play a memorable show. A concertgoer says in the documentary:

“A legend is in town and it’s not just another rock ’n’ roll show. I mean it’s rock ’n’ roll, but it’s a special event where rock ’n’ roll has four or five legends. This is one of them and maybe the biggest one at the present time.”

Bob Dylan downplayed it jokingly and said “It’s just something that happened 40 years ago and that’s the truth of it.”

The origin of the tour’s name has many different stories. Some say it’s named after new age spiritual, Rolling Thunder, but the other story (which I believe) is that Bob Dylan heard thunder after thunder one day, and decided on the name, Rolling Thunder. Bob Dylan is a bit of a mystery though and you’ll see how.

While on tour, Bob Dylan was working with screenwriter Sam Shepard to make a film called Renaldo and Clara, staring him and Joan Baez.

The tour wasn’t just an average folk rock tour, there were elements of theatre in it. You’ll see in the footage how Bob Dylan was wearing white facepaint and wearing a mask. The other musicians wore facepaint and many of them wore masks too.

Memorable Quotes

There were a lot of memorable quotes in this documentary. I’ll share some quotes I liked here. No spoiler alerts yet.

“Life isn’t about finding yourself or finding anything. Life is about creating yourself and creating things.” – Bob Dylan

“His idea is to show how beautiful he is by showing us how beautiful we are. By showing how beautiful the ensemble is. So it’s to show the actual community.” – Allen Ginsberg

“Allen Ginsberg was anything but a father figure” – Bob Dylan

“Nowadays, lines that people remember are lines from songs, lyrics from songs” – Bob Dylan

“Joan Baez and me could sing anything. We could sing together in our sleep” – Bob Dylan

“She always seems like she’s just come down from a meteorite” – Bob Dylan on Joan Baez

“Everything is forgiven whenever I would see Bob sing. It is so… the charisma that he has, I’ve never seen anywhere, before or since. And the beauty of those songs.” – Joan Baez

Rolling Stone magazine was interested in the economics, how much are these people getting paid… You know, why are they playing bigger halls as the tour went on? Those were the kind of questions they were asking, and I didn’t give a shit about that. I mean, what I was concerned with was, you know, chronicling this… this, uh, cultural event.” – Larry “Ratso” Sloman

“I’ve never had more faith in America that I do today. We have an America that, in Bob Dylan’s phrase, is busy being born, not busy dying.” – Jimmy Carter

“Dylan was considered the enemy, really by a lot of these guys” – Rep. Jack Tanner

“Dylan was different than other people who came to see me. I mean other people would ask the obvious questions. ‘Rubin are you guilty?’ You know, ‘Did you commit this crime?’ ‘Did you do that?’ You know? But Dylan wasn’t asking that. Not at all. It seemed like he was searching for something else.” – Rubin “Hurricane” Carter

“Both of us were performers and crowd-pleasers” – Rubin “Hurricane” Carter

“The ballad of the Hurricane sent an indelible message of justice gone awry.” – Rubin “Hurricane” Carter

Thoughts on the Film

It’s time for spoilers. If you don’t like spoilers, you might want to press that back button or jump to a different tab now and come back when you’ve seen the film.

I’ll just say it now, this is not a conventional documentary like No Direction Home. If you’re expecting all these facts and trivia you can drop at a party when you’re talking about Bob Dylan, hold on, there’s some fictional aspects. I thought this was a bit odd because isn’t a documentary supposed to be the truth? Then again, Bob Dylan has some mystery about him. The good news about this documentary, there’s a new Bob Dylan interview and he’s not too different from the young Bob Dylan.

He’s not one to sit down and give interviews. When he does give an interview, he’ll be witty, cryptic, and sarcastic. This is nothing new. He’s been taking that approach since the 60s and that’s something I like about him. See the video below. When you’re being asked the same tired questions day in day out, I can’t blame him for being sarcastic and cryptic, messing with the journalists. I’d probably be the same way sometimes.

Masks are a motif in this film and you’ll notice that in footage and in the credits and it’s like watching some episodes of Black Mirror. You don’t notice these things until after the fact or if you’re multitasking and googling all these names and looking at reviews. The motif is even in this quote from Bob Dylan that you’ll hear in the middle of the documentary, “If someone’s wearing a mask, he’s gonna tell you the truth.” So take some things with a grain of salt then?

In this film, there’s all sorts of names and faces, many of them real people who had a part in this, with a couple pretenders mixed in, like “Stefan van Dorp”, “Rep. Jack Tanner”, and “Jim Gianopulos”. You’ll notice in the credits they’re labelled as “The Players” and they each have a generic role name like “The Promoter”, “The Filmmaker”, and “The Politician”. Were we hoodwinked?

I have to give the actors who played them credit. Acting isn’t something that just anyone can do well. They did a wonderful job painting a picture of their imaginary involvement in this landmark Bob Dylan tour. We’re in the 21st century and thanks to Google, I found out there was no “Stefan van Dorp” or “Jack Tanner”, those roles were played by Martin von Haselberg and Michael Murphy, respectively. The name “Jack Tanner” references a miniseries called Tanner ’88. Jim Gianopulos is actually the CEO of Paramount, not a concert promoter.

There’s another bit of artistic licence with the story of actress Sharon Stone allegedly being part of the tour, being a groupie of sorts, and talking to Bob Dylan about Kiss (Bob Dylan didn’t see them in concert and they were not the inspiration behind the face paint). Kiss were only starting to take off in 1976, around the time of the tour. Sharon Stone wasn’t even at the concert and any photos of them together were created with good old Photoshop.

This deception, so to speak, doesn’t bother me though and it doesn’t take away from the art and enjoyment of this film. Ann Powers of NPR said it well, it’s kind of like This is Spinal Tap, in a way. A source close to Bob Dylan told Rolling Stone, “We hope that people will watch it several times to unlock its various Easter eggs.” Well played, Bob Dylan and Martin Scorsese. While watching the movie I googled the fictional characters and I couldn’t find anything, so it did get me thinking.

Now, let’s move on to the aesthetics and the story telling. This documentary puts you in 1975-1976 very well and does a good job of giving context with a mix of b-roll footage from the concerts, behind the scenes videos, archive video, and talking about what was going on in America at the time. It was after the embarrassment that was the Vietnam War and Nixon had resigned in 1974 and there was an election coming up. The economy wasn’t great either. Like in the present, music was a lot of people’s escape from the depressing politics of the time.

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It’s so cool to see so many big names in music talked about in one film and it goes to show you that there are so many connections in rock and roll and that world is so small. The concert performance footage was really cool and man, it made me want to be there. It sold me on the concert and it gave me FOMO for a time before I was born. Get me a time machine and take me to that concert now!

It’s a beautifully done and presented movie, for sure and definitely worth the watch if you’re a Bob Dylan fan. It’s on Netflix, so it’s easy to access. If you’re a classic rock historian type of fan looking for pure facts, this may not be the perfect documentary for you, but you’ll just have to turn off that part of your brain and enjoy the ride.

Shout out to my good friend and Topaz level Patron, Patrick.

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