Before this week, Bob Dylan was most recently in the news for stopping a concert in Vienna to address the chroniclers in the audience. “We can either play or we can pose. OK?” he reportedly said, a critique on screen culture that quickly spread to other screens.
That’s on-brand, right? He is a figure of mystery explained, or not, by lore. No recording in April; No stage banter on a Thursday night in St. Paul; sends a proxy to deliver his speech after winning the Nobel Prize for Literature.
But now he’s in my living room and your living room, and he’s talking into a camera on purpose. He is trying to explain the Rolling Thunder Revue, the merry cast of misfit artists he toured with in the mid-1970s, inspired by both circuses and Patti Smith, a spoken word artist seen here using her whole body to push out words and then latching on to a phrase and repeating it and then her band starts up, and boom!
It’s going OK, fine even. Then he falls out of it. He reveals a touch of eccentric old crank.
“That’s all clumsy bullshit,” he says in an interview. “I’m trying to get to what the Rolling Thunder thing is about … it happened so long ago, I wasn’t even born.” He rubs his face.
Martin Scorsese’s “The Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story” is a 2-hour-plus documentary-ish, as of Wednesday, available on Netflix. The -ish is because alongside 40-year-old concert footage and resurrected scenes from a more-than-feature-length film that most humans don't like about a fictional Mr. and Mrs. Dylan, there is an immeasurable amount of invention: a talking-head politician, a movie director, actor Sharon Stone’s claims about meeting Dylan in her late teens and traveling as his go-fer, and more things you wouldn’t even notice. (Rolling Stone, Vulture and Vanity Fair are among the large publications offering a fact-or-fiction viewing guide).
On Netflix it’s described as “an alchemic mix of fact and fantasy,” which is seemingly fine with people who critique this sort of thing, Bob Dylan lore and all.
Dylan was in his mid-30s at the time of the Rolling Thunder Revue. The United States, incidentally, was turning 200. He had recently returned to touring after a decent-length hiatus, and planned to do it at more intimate venues. There were two attempts on Pres. Gerald Ford’s life in less than three weeks.
Dylan surrounded himself with a crew of larger-than-life characters: Joan Baez, “she always seemed like she’d just come down from a meteor,” Dylan said of her; Scarlet Rivera, the violinist he famously plucked from a street corner whom he describes as always carrying swords; playwright Sam Shephard, asked along to write about this all because of his knowledge of the underworld; and Allen Ginsberg, who travels with Dylan to Jack Karouac’s grave to recite poems and listen to the musician play a small piano.
Here, Dylan was a guy in a paisley coat, holding a beer and nodding while Ginsberg performed. He was the pilot of an RV (brand: the Executive), cigarette in one hand, hoping to make it to Boston on time.
And he was his most familiar image: a musician, face covered in white paint wearing a hat decorated with flora, his lined eyes bright for a performance of “Mr. Tambourine Man.”
For every moment in the film when Dylan is on stage, beneath a spotlight, a single bead of sweat rolling down the side of his face but not quite touching the white paint, there is a quiet Dylan moment where he is just a face in a group shot — sunglasses and hair.
Scorsese has included extended shots, sometimes complete songs performed by Dylan and company. At one point, a bandmate tugs at his shirt, and he shrugs him off and shoots a wicked eye-dart at the unseen musician. At another point, he shares a microphone with Baez, their heads dang-near touching.
The lights come on at the end of a show, and a woman in the audience weeps, full-on, broken down, weeps.
“Rolling Thunder Revue” almost explodes with the power of creativity, freedom, collective energy, the sense of shaking free one’s feral inner artist. It’s weird. It’s wonderful. It’s pure euphoria. It’s an intimate behind-the-scenes study — Bob Dylan the way the early adopters met him: a man of serious protest songs, a man who brought attention to a wrongly incarcerated boxer, a man shirtless beneath a vest, a trumpet at his mouth and a line of fellow wildcats behind him.
But it’s also a way we haven’t seen him — at least not the Traveling Wilburys generation. He is present and full-faced. He offers warm and lengthy commentary on the artists whose paths synched with his, especially Baez. Sometimes when he was sleeping, he says, it was her voice that he heard. He offers paragraphs of thoughtful thoughts. The white face paint, he concedes, he got from KISS.
“When someone’s wearing a mask, he’s gonna tell you the truth,” Dylan says. “When he’s not wearing a mask, it’s highly unlikely.”
Dylan is known for his unwieldiness, but he’s not known for sitting in a chair with a camera trained on his face. In present tense, his only accessory is a bolo tie. The white face paint is gone. But what if it weren't?
“Life isn’t about finding yourself, or finding anything,” Dylan says in the film. “It’s about creating yourself.”