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Martin Scorsese's mischievous new film reintroduces fans to peak Bob Dylan

NBC News logo NBC News 6/12/2019 Jeff Slate
a group of people standing on a stage: Image: Martin Scorsese's new documentary 'Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story' on Netflix. © Ken Reagan Image: Martin Scorsese's new documentary 'Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story' on Netflix.

The way The Byrds' Roger McGuinn tells it, Bob Dylan's 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue tour had simple beginnings. While shooting hoops one day in McGuinn's driveway, Dylan stopped the game.

"I'm not very good, and we're playing one-on-one, and he's pretty good, hitting baskets," McGuinn told me recently. "He realized pretty quickly that it's not going to be a game, really, so we stopped playing and he said, 'I want to do something different.' Now, Bob Dylan saying he wants to do something different could be 'let's all move to Mars.' I said, 'What do you mean?' And he said, 'I don't know, I think something like a circus.' And that's all he said, and we went back to shooting baskets."

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The eventual result was one of Dylan's most legendary tours, his trek across the northeastern U.S. and Canada, with an all-star supporting cast that included Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, McGuinn and others in tow. Chronicled first by Sam Shepard and journalist Larry "Ratso" Sloman, and eventually in the fifth edition of Dylan's long-running "Bootleg Series" in 2002, it's now the subject of a remarkable new film, "Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese," and a 14-CD box set (as well as a reissue of the long-out-of-print vinyl version of the original live compilation).

Long-rumored amongst Dylan diehards to be in the works, Scorsese's film is now available on Netflix (and in select theaters), and is a mesmerizing, altogether different follow-up to Scorsese's 2005 Dylan documentary, "No Direction Home." Like Dylan's ill-fated film "Renaldo and Clara," shot during the original Rolling Thunder tour — footage from which Scorsese uses liberally to tell his story — Scorsese's film mixes fact and fiction in ways that only add to the movie's appeal, not to mention the myths surrounding Dylan during this period.

"I don't remember a thing about Rolling Thunder," Dylan says in the film. "It happened so long ago, I wasn't even born yet." After pausing for a perfect, comedic beat, he adds, "So what do you want to know?"

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Ever mercurial, Dylan adds later: "When somebody's wearing a mask, he's going to tell the truth. When he's not wearing a mask, it's highly unlikely."

Dylan, of course, isn't wearing a mask during the interview.

Much will be made of these comments, as well as the fact that the "filmmaker," the "promoter" and "U.S. Rep. Jack Tanner," interviewed alongside Dylan, Baez, McGuinn and others in the film, are all fictional characters in what otherwise appears to be, for all intents and purposes, a documentary. Even the actress Sharon Stone turns up as the "beauty queen" to recount her (fictional) recollections of hanging out with Dylan and company as they traversed New England in the late fall of 1975.

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But this subterfuge is designed to further Scorsese's — and Dylan's — story, which mixes up the timeline a bit during the post-Watergate era. Juxtaposed against the grim waning days of industrialized America and the often humorous, sometimes fictional interviews are some of the greatest filmed performances of Dylan's career, which show him to be not only a peerless songwriter and fearless performer, but an astonishingly powerful singer.

Bob Dylan wearing a suit and tie: Image: Martin Scorsese's new documentary 'Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story' on Netflix. © Netflix Image: Martin Scorsese's new documentary 'Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story' on Netflix.

It was an electrifying period for the artist. "He was writing these theatrical songs, epic songs," Sloman, who appears in the film, told me. "When he's singing 'Isis,' he's completely in the character of the song. He's emoting. It was chilling. I've never seen him ever since then that comfortable in his own skin."

And that's the real story here. Whatever smoke and mirrors Scorsese (and Dylan) choose to throw up to further the storytelling, there is no denying the truth in Dylan's performances in the film and on the box set.

"I couldn't believe it," Dylan's bandleader, bassist Rob Stoner, told me of his days standing next to Dylan. "This guy had so much energy. He was like a ball of fire. He had this amazing aura. And you realize that this is a seriously big deal. It's being immortalized on film. It's Bob Dylan's next move. It's a huge thing, and it's getting an amazing amount of attention. But you also know it's going to go down in history."

"The whole atmosphere was so magical," added Dylan's childhood friend Louis Kemp, who also managed Rolling Thunder, a period chronicled in his forthcoming book, "Dylan & Me."

"Bob's dream of doing this type of tour had become a reality, which early on he didn't think would happen, because nobody supported it," Kemp said. "So he was loving it, and he got energy from every aspect of it: from performing; from driving the camper; from all the people that we picked up along the way. … Bob was having a ball. It didn't seem like work. It was just fun."

Every one of Dylan's performances in Scorsese's film, including his amazing duets with Baez, can be found on Sony's "Bob Dylan — Rolling Thunder Revue: The 1975 Live Recordings,"​ a 148-track collection that includes five full sets of professionally recorded Dylan performances from the tour, as well as recently unearthed rehearsals and jams. While typically the sort of bonus tracks that feel like a cash-grab, the recordings here — including a half-finished Dylan song, as well as his take on the Motown classic "The Tracks of My Tears," and a piano-driven performance of his "Blood on the Tracks" song "Simple Twist of Fate," performed, improbably, at a mahjong tournament — are essential listening for fans.

But perhaps the most important reason for watching (or listening) is the fact that, unlike Dylan's then-just-completed reunion tour with The Band, the Rolling Thunder tour was relatively small.

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"Nobody was playing in Plymouth, Massachusetts, or Niagara Falls, or all these other places that we ended up doing on Rolling Thunder," recalled Kemp of the venues Dylan insisted on playing. "But that was part of what Bob wanted to do: He wanted to go to the people and let them see him in a small environment. And for it to be a fun thing, he wanted it to be like a carnival atmosphere. And that's what we did."

"Everybody was playing all the time, no matter whether it was onstage, after the show in the hospitality suite, in the morning, or on the bus," added Sloman. "They were constantly jamming. It was amazing. It was like the old days for Dylan, I'm sure."

For his part, Roger McGuinn also remembers that Dylan was on top of his game, but that it all felt almost effortless, too.

"We went up and down the East Coast, with this incredible four and a half hour show," he recalled. "Joni Mitchell joined us. Arlo Guthrie. We got to Toronto and Gordon Lightfoot was there. We went to Leonard Cohen's house for dinner in Montreal. It was the best two-month party I've ever been to."

On "Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese" and "Rolling Thunder Revue: The 1975 Live Recordings," fans will encounter peak Bob Dylan, the man who invented the job of rock and roll star, reinventing it yet again, with the greatest performances of his career.

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