Review: Rolling Thunder Revue (2019)

Rolling Thunder Revue is a new Bob Dylan film by Martin Scorsese; perhaps one could say documentary in place of film, but that isn’t exactly true. This is certainly loaded with real footage from Dylan’s tour of 1975 and 1976, his Blood on the Tracks and Desire era, but the work as a whole sits in murkier water. Scorsese and Dylan spin a tale mixing fact and fiction, giving no differentiation between the two as to disorient.

The concert footage is the real meat of the work, perhaps its one safe truth. This is Dylan at a career high point, and his performances of songs such as “Hurricane” are stellar. Mixed in is footage featuring artists such as Joni Mitchell and Patti Smith, along with poet Allen Ginsberg, capturing a wider scope of the art scene beyond Dylan alone. Patti Smith must be standing here at the eve of the punk movement, while Ginsberg is on a clear decline after the fall of Beat. This is a film of intersections; Dylan himself had a several year gap of practical irrelevance in the early 1970s, and this brief peak is followed by his controversial Evangelical era.

The disorientation reflects this; could anyone really be sure what this would add up to at the time? It seems a sure thing now, what with the lasting presence of Blood on the Tracks and to a lesser extent Desire; but no one could have known how fleeting this moment would be. Dylan wouldn’t have a string of great albums again until the release of Time Out of Mind; 1989’s Oh Mercy was perhaps the one noteworthy work he put out between 1977 and 1996.

Despite this gap, Dylan always endured as a figure, and the falsities exist here to build up that image. If even official materials can’t stick to the truth, how can we ever know the real man? The full title states that this is a “Bob Dylan Story;” not the truth but an approximation of real events. Martin Scorsese is mythologizing here.

What, then, is the effect on the audience? A lot of these fake stories involve entirely fictional people, including a supposed director who recorded the original footage but never ended up using it; but using this as a fictional element seems slight when a real concert documentary, Amazing Grace, shares a more extreme story in its production. What is added in this particular choice to obfuscate the people who actually recorded the footage? All I can imagine is a less informed person walking away with false information and a more informed person growing tired of the constant return to this figure.

Rolling Thunder Revue is a mockery of the music documentary but not as a comedy; in an era of untruths, it seems fitting to get a true story loaded with blatant deceptions that never acknowledges that element, leaving an audience who questions every moment and has to search out articles to separate fact from fiction. It could be a political statement, to ask us to question what presents itself as fact; it’s just as much two mischievous old artists pulling our legs, having fun with our perceptions of them while letting a certain set of journalists reveal the truth for them.

Like Welles’ F for Fake, Rolling Thunder Revue asks us not to differentiate fact from fiction but whether it matters when the replica is the more intriguing of the two. Why not engage with this suggestion that Dylan’s life was rather fantastical? Where’s the harm in misunderstanding a few details in the life of a superstar?

This is all a fun concept, but with so much obvious posturing, Rolling Thunder Revue is bogged down by its length. F for Fake runs for a brisk 88 minutes, while this is nearly two and a half hours. Scorsese’s twisted tale isn’t quite up to the one Welles spun, either, so it reaches a point where it’s easy to just tune out the details between concert footage; why pay attention if you figure half of it isn’t true? Welles succeeded by promising the truth but for only an hour; Scorsese offers his audience little to nothing in regards to where the truth lies.

Ultimately, Rolling Thunder Revue is two artistic powerhouses coming together to question a form of expression that claims to offer truth. There’s a lot here to be celebrated; Bob Dylan is one of the all-time great musicians and being able to see his performances is wonderful, while Martin Scorsese knows how to craft a compelling documentary. You have to buy into the mythologizing element – but if you do, it’s a rather unique experience.

4 Stars Out of 5

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