Scorsese’s new concert documentary film is sometimes moving, sometimes powerful musically, and almost always an entertaining piece of filmmaking, if not a head-scratching one.
Legendary director Martin Scorsese has a long and rich history of music or concert documentaries if you look at his filmography. You might have some directors run with a passion project documentary occasionally; Spike Lee’s powerful Four Little Girls comes to mind. Scorsese, though, is in love with all forms of the medium and has directed 19 documentaries from 1966 to 2019. Many of them have been about either the concert or a historical chronical of the musician variety. The best have been Shine a Light, that was a love letter to the Rolling Stones 2006 Beacon Theatre concert on their A Bigger Bang Tour. He has shot a documentary about Dylan before called No Direction Home, but for my money, his greatest concert documentary has to be The Last Waltz, which covered the Canadian-American rock band The Band and documented their Thanksgiving Day concert at the Winter Land Ballroom in San Francisco. His new concert film, Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese, is an engrossing look at a legendary tour that brought Bob Dylan back to touring, even if Dylan himself comments that this Rolling Thunder thing is, “About nothing.” Little did I know how much these words meant for this film.
Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese is Scorsese’s 19th documentary film and it chronicles the legendary Rolling Thunder Revue tour, which had 15 headliners that included bringing back Dylan, who had left touring for 8 years previously. The diminutive director attempts to capture the times these young generational-shifting musicians had on the country that was going through the Vietnam War, two presidential assassination attempts. What made this tour different was it was geared towards smaller venues and auditoriums to speak to the younger crowd that made for a more intimate experience. Some of the performers on the tour are quite jaw-dropping, including, besides Dylan, Joan Baez, Roger McGuinn (The Byrds), Joni Mitchell, and Ronee Blakely (better known for playing Barbara Jean in Robert Altman’s Nashville); in all, The Rolling Thunder Revue had 57 concerts in two individual legs.
But, there is a catch, as the documentary is described as a Bob Dylan story. A story can be fictional, and there are multiple fictional elements of this documentary that leaves the viewer guessing what is happening and what is true. Scorsese hires actors to play different players on the tour and to spin the tales where almost pre-weaved. This is meant for a different film-going experience, as the tour has been well documented (but which may be the point, little footage has ever been used or found), where viewers can spot the “hidden” Easter eggs along the way — that’s if the casual millennial or Gen Z even know who Dylan or Baez were or even care. It makes you wonder if this is left to history, is the director showing us how if this period is forgotten will we repeat mistakes in the future? Oops…
Some of the more obvious cameos to anyone in their thirties will hopefully understand that Sharon Stone was not on the tour then and she would have been in her teens at the time (as a gentleman, I won’t reveal her age). Others I didn’t catch, for example, there is no real Steven Van Dorp, who directed the original concert footage; this is an actor with Scorsese ties. If so much hadn’t been made about this unorthodox storytelling that is out of the legendary director’s character on social media, I would have egg on my face thinking most of this is actually documented truth (or what is true to you, me, or anyone left in between).
So, that leaves us with this question- what was Scorsese is trying to do by filling gaps with Spinal Tap “mockumentary” scenes? Was he trying to show a documentary as revisionist history? Was he trying to catch the critical media off guard? Was he commenting on today’s short attention span and how we have condemned ourselves to repeat history? I don’t know, and no one really does, except the man himself.
Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese is an engrossing film that, narratively, is wonderfully structured, building on steps it established in scenes before; as every 20 minutes you are treated to a Dylan song that takes you through a period of deeply unsettled times that greatly mirrors what we are going through this decade (I won’t ruin what classic lyrics unfold). It may not be your classic documentary or not even a mockumentary; you might even call it a head-scratching experience about a tour that was more of a traveling band of an eclectic collection of hipster musical vagabond artists that would define a generation.
Either way, Scorsese’s film is a sometimes moving one, a sometimes musically powerful one, a sometimes funny one, and certainly, always an entertaining piece of filmmaking.
M.N. Miller has been a film and television writer for Ready Steady Cut since August of 2018 and is patiently waiting for the next Pearl Jam album to come out.