Music Movie Review: "Rolling Thunder Revue" is About Almost Nothing At All
Directed by Martin Scorsese.
Legendary singer-songwriter Bob Dylan stopped touring in 1966, leaving a short but extremely prosperous career in folk music behind. After returning to the stage with The Band in 1974, Dylan felt the itch, and announced his official rock/country-based comeback in the fall of '75- but he didn't want to tour alone. With appearances including Patti Smith, Joan Baez, Jack Elliott, Joni Mitchell, Sam Shepard, and Allen Ginsberg (poet)- the rotating band of freewheeling artists didn't play at huge arenas, as the goal was to hit as many small venues as they could to try to get to know 1975's America. It was a financial disaster, but a creative field trip that went down in history.
At the beginning of the film, Dylan tries to reminisce on his Rolling Thunder tour, and has a bit of trouble, "I don't remember a damn thing about Rolling Thunder." Honestly, I don't blame him.
For a group of supposedly completely sober artists, the conversations in Rolling Thunder Revue sound like the typical acid-fueled ramblings that set the stereotype of the 60s and 70s rock scene. Smith's lines are the most memorable, as she babbles about absolutely nothing for the duration of the film- telling nonsensical tales during performances, describing Dylan as her imaginary boyfriend, and having hushed conversations with the singer about Superman crushing a diamond into a crystal ball.
"Uh, Superman takes a piece of coal and he puts it in his hand, and he starts squeezing it, and squeezing it, and squeezing it, and squeezing it, and then it becomes like a diamond. It's real hard," said Smith. "And then, like, he drops it on the ground, on the baseball diamond. And the kids, the kids keep kicking it, the kids keep kicking it, and then it goes round and round. And after years and years of kids kicking it around, it gets smooth, but it's not.. It's just changed. It's still the same crystal, but it's smooth, so it's a crystal ball. So it's sitting there in the middle, the crystal ball is sitting there in the middle of the baseball diamond. Okay? Now you can look in."
Ginsberg, the group guru, has a random chat with a young boy during one of Elliott's performances in front of a display of mannequin Pilgrims and Native Americans, asking the kid if he'd, "rather be a Pilgrim, or an Indian?" Where he continues to explain that the kid shouldn't choose Pilgrims, since when they reach land, they'll turn into wax dolls for "the rest of the universe". Then when the kid chooses Indians, Ginsberg retracts, and says, "Well, you know, the Indians.. that's true- well, we're all wax dolls, so."
Dylan dons his iconic face paint for the era, which drips off his face during each performance, his eyes bulging and wagging his long (coke?) nail in the air. He has a huddled conversation with a concert-goer about the difference between "romantic marriage" and "mental marriage", as a particularly annoying Rolling Stone reporter follows him around like a puppy.
This sort of whimsical speech takes up the majority of the run time, making for an amazing watch if you're in a silly mood, but when searching for any physical meaning behind the endeavor, you come up empty handed. The term "revue" is defined as "a show with songs, dances, jokes, and short plays often about recent events" which is true for this documentary, as it's characters rave, ramble and perform with an incoherent mix of self-seriousness and silliness. Rolling Thunder Revue makes it clear that the artists involved were along for the ride, but without much of a vision for what the tour was supposed to become.
Ginsberg attempted to summarize their spiritual goals for the journey, but stumbled. "The first concert will take place in Plymouth. Uh, where the, uh, Pilgrims stepped off their Mayflower," said Ginsberg. "We're, as if we're the Pilgrims. Pilgrims in a sense of searchers, looking for the, uh, kingdom of a nation, with maybe a different intention. Making America a kingdom of poetry, a nation of poetry."
The film's description reads, "an alchemic mix of fact and fantasy", since half of the stories told in Rolling Thunder Revue never even happened. A teenage Sharon Stone never joined the travelling gang, the makeup Dylan and Baez donned weren't Kiss inspired, "Stefan van Dorp" is an actor, so is "congressman Jack Tanner", and Jim Gianopulos never promoted the tour. It's an unconventional documentary, that's for sure, but it's unorthodox structure paints the project as more of a splash of long-lost footage rather than a story that deserves a spotlight.
Watching Dylan perform "Hurricane" for the first time is pretty cool, plus the interview with Rubin Carter about the song dedicated to him was the kind of meat I had been hungry for- but if you're not passionately into Dylan and his music, there just isn't much for you here.
The documentary does a good job at organizing and attempting to make sense of the rare footage of performances, dancing, and nonsensical philosophies of these road-tripping cowboy hippies, thanks to Scorsese- but Rolling Thunder Revue doesn't add much substance to Dylan's legacy.
I'll leave with this quote from Dylan that summarizes the watch pretty perfectly. "I'm trying to get to the core of what this Rolling Thunder thing is all about, and I don't have a clue, because it's about nothing," said Dylan. "It's just something that happened 40 years ago, and that's the truth of it."
~ I'm giving Rolling Thunder Revue 3/5 stars. It's a good doc if you're interested in the era or the music, but don't expect anything substantial.~