In 1975, the U.S. was at a crossroads. The Vietnam War was over, and Americans were more disillusioned than ever. Big cities out east, like New York and Washington D.C., prepped for the Bicentennial, but Small Town, U.S.A., seemed not to notice. Or care. “It’s like America lost its conviction for anything,” Bob Dylan says in Rolling Thunder Revue, directed by Martin Scorsese and now available from The Criterion Collection.
So Dylan hit the road, playing small venues and intimate halls with an all-star supporting cast: Joan Baez, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Bob Neuwirth, Mick Ronson, T Bone Burnett, Scarlet Rivera and dozens more join the Rolling Thunder Revue concert tour. Joni Mitchell shows up, as does Ronnie Hawkins. Poet Allen Ginsberg tags along. It’s a scene, man, and documentarian David Myers captures it on 16mm while Rolling Stone scribe Larry “Ratso” Sloman jots the whole thing down. Ginsberg also files poetry from the road for Stone, while Anne Waldman works on her own as the tour’s “poet-in-residence witness.” Playwright Sam Shepard also bears witness with pen in hand while he and Dylan work on the screenplay for Renaldo and Clara between gigs.
Criterion collects these writings, and a new essay from Dana Spiotta, for its set. It fills in the gaps between the Rolling Thunder Revue tour then and the Rolling Thunder Revue concert docufiction now.
The bulk of Rolling Thunder comes from Myers’ concert footage, shot in 1975-76, and film from Renaldo and Clara. While constructing Rolling Thunder 40-plus years later, Scorsese and company discovered that Myers’ original negative was lost for good. That meant restoring the heavily damaged 16mm workprint, “To get the images back to what they could have looked like,” Scorsese says in a supplemental interview on the disc. The results are stunning and attractive. They have a dreamy, Edenic quality to them; fitting, considering the story as a whole.
Born Robert Allen Zimmerman in Duluth, Minnesota, Dylan took on a mystique even before he recorded his 1962 self-titled debut album. Rumors circled about his stage name, his origin and the source of his talent. Then he went electric, disappeared, came back with white paint smeared on his face, was born again, and so on. Dylan’s a man busy being born.
That line: “He who is not busy being born is busy dying,” comes from “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” from Dylan’s 1965 album Bringing It All Back Home. The song was a favorite of President Jimmy Carter, who appears in archival footage in Rolling Thunder, along with Rep. Jack Tanner of Michigan. Except that Tanner isn’t a real person: He’s a character from Robert Altman’s satirical miniseries, Tanner ’88. Michael Murphy reprises his role for Rolling Thunder, and Scorsese gives no hint that chicanery is afoot. Ditto for Sharon Stone, who recounts a fabricated tale of being dragged to a Dylan show by her mother. The filmmakers even embed Stone into an archival photograph so convincingly, nothing about it tickles the bullshit antennae. Same for Murphy: Unless you’ve seen Tanner ’88, you wouldn’t suspect a thing.
It’s those slights of hand that transform Rolling Thunder Revue from a simple document into something revelatory. Both Dylan and Scorsese love a good story, and both share a suspicion that deception and misdirection might be the best way to get to the truth. “Life isn’t about finding yourself,” Dylan says in the movie, “It’s about creating yourself.”