Bob Dylan has spent his whole career creating myths and personas to keep fans and critics scratching their heads in wonder.
Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Film
Begins streaming Wednesday
So why should they be surprised a new film from the Nobel Prize-winning, folk-singing legend should continue leading them down the garden path?
Released Wednesday on Netflix (it also gets a small cinematic release, not unlike Alfonso Cuarón's Roma in 2018), Dylan teams up with Oscar-winning director Martin Scorsese for Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story.
The film zooms back to 1975, a year after Dylan's successful return to the stage with a tour of hockey arenas alongside his old cohorts, the Band. This time around, however, it's a ramshackle, chaotic affair as Dylan seeks a different kind of performance with a series of intimate concerts to be performed in small venues such as theatres, school auditoriums and circus tents.
He's joined by friends such as Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Roger McGuinn of the Byrds, guitarist Mick Ronson and violinist Scarlet Rivera, among others. All these years later, the cast is a who's who of rock history.
"It wasn't a success," a modern-day Dylan recalls during a trailer for the film. "Not if you measure success in terms of profit."
All the white makeup and vintage costumes Dylan and company wear look eerily familiar to the spontaneous post-hippie esthetic folk festivals try to capture to this day, even as the quirkiness of the 1970s is replaced by the bottom-line realities of the 21st-century music industry.
Eventually, a few bigger venues such as the Montreal Forum and Madison Square Garden in New York would welcome the Rolling Thunder Revue. Dylan even dispatched camera crews to document the shows and collect footage for a future film, Renaldo and Clara, which bombed a few years later.
Dylan has revisited this material once before, in 2002's Bootleg Series Vol. 5 Live 1975, an excellent two-disc set that gets reissued alongside a new 14-disc box set which includes more concert recordings, as well as rehearsals and other rarities.
Dylan has always been a careful collector and protector of his image — a complete archive and museum is being created in Tulsa, Okla., alongside a similar one dedicated to his idol, Woody Guthrie — so instead of leaving all that Rolling Thunder footage on the cutting-room floor, Dylan kept it in his vault of concert recordings and unreleased studio material.
All these years later, he let Scorsese and his team sift through the hours of 16 mm film footage, clean it all up and re-edit it. And in so doing, Scorsese helps remove the layers of dust off one of the first personas Dylan created to keep the "real Bob Dylan" shrouded in mystery.
It's a strategy that's proved so successful that more than 40 years later, Dylan fans and detractors continue to be fascinated with further Dylan personas — whether it's the born-again Dylan of the late ‘70s, a punkier Dylan of the '80s, his "roving gambler" look of the 2000 revival or his fascination with Frank Sinatra on his last three studio albums. These different versions of Dylan — so well depicted in the 2007 Todd Haynes film I'm Not There rarely get closer to the real Bob Dylan, which itself was a fabrication, however.
The result is Rolling Thunder Revue is not a historical document, nor a look back at a charming chapter of Dylan's storied career, a producer admits in an interview with Reuters.
"We are not calling it a documentary," Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story producer Margaret Bodde tells the wire service, adding the film's fictional elements follow the creative spirit of the 1975 tour.
In other words, Dylan fans and critics should not expect another revealing look back at Dylan himself, like Scorsese's earlier Dylan effort, No Direction Home, which followed Dylan from his early days in Hibbing, Minn., to the end of Dylan's acrimonious 1966 tour, when his legend was cemented into pop culture.
However, Rolling Thunder Revue does provide striking views of Dylan the performer that are often dwarfed by those famous performances of the 1960s.
Famous folk songs such as A Hard Rain's A Gonna Fall and It Ain't Me, Babe get reworked into energetic rock anthems — the beginning of Dylan's penchant of rearranging his classics to fit a new narrative. He practises this method to this very day as the 78-year-old continues his Neverending Tour around the world, creating new versions of Blowin' in the Wind or Like a Rolling Stone, which either breathe life into the originals or mystify concert audiences seeking a bit of ‘60s nostalgia.
The film, and certainly the box set, also offer live performances of Dylan tunes he never sings any more — the famous tune Hurricane, about wrongfully jailed boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, or Romance in Durango come to mind — providing another glimpse into Dylan's oft-forgotten songs from the mid-‘70s.
Rolling Thunder Revue's glimpse of one of rock's craziest tours, mixed in with some more of Dylan's whimsy, should keep those searching for answers to the Dylan legend busy until next year, when the songwriter is scheduled to release a second book of memoirs.
Arts and Life Editor
Alan Small was named the editor of the Free Press Arts and Life section in January 2013 after almost 15 years at the paper in a variety of editing roles.