June 26, 2019

In the Line of Fire: Bob Dylan Unleashed in “Rolling Thunder”

By Stuart Mitchner

Reviewers are upset with Martin Scorsese for violating documentary integrity in his just-released film Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story, which is streaming on Netflix and on view in “select theaters.” Some notices even bill themselves as guides to “all the fake stuff Scorsese put in his new Bob Dylan movie.”

Figuring out “what’s true and what’s staged” seems beside the point when the main reason to see the film is the music, the ambiance, and above all the chance to witness Dylan unleashed. You’re right there in the line of fire, recoiling from the force of the words violinist Scarlet Rivera sees as “staccato bullets” even as she’s creating a conflagration of her own, never taking her eyes off him, zoning in on every line he shoots, every move, fiddling while Dylan burns. He’s too close for comfort, daubed in reverse-Minstrel-show white-face; you feel shaken, thrilled, chilled, with code words for American aggression coming crazily to mind, “Shock and Awe” for the bombing of Baghdad, and, yes, “Rolling Thunder” for the bombing of Vietnam.

Seeing the rapport between the violinist and the singer, the way Rivera reads Dylan as she plays, you understand why she’d say “I was with a living genius, on the level of a Shakespeare of our time” in an earlier film (Rolling Thunder and The Gospel Years, 2006). That was a decade before Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature.

The version of “Isis” Dylan performs in Rolling Thunder makes the studio track on the 1976 LP Desire “sound like a greeting card,” says Tim Riley in Hard Rain: A Dylan Commentary (1999). Sheila O’Malley shows why in her Film Comment account of the “ferocious rendition” of “Isis,” where Dylan “stalks the crowded stage, like a mad holy man, a shaman, a mime gone off the rails …. a maniacal gleam in his eye.” Quoting Emerson’s depiction of Walt Whitman as a “Minotaur of a man,” she imagines Dylan howling “that voice of his from the center of a labyrinth. He knows more than we know.”

What’s Nixon Doing Here?

Does it really matter if the various talking heads Scorsese uses to augment footage filmed 44 years ago are real or fictional when the purpose is to provide the illusion of real-time voices in a pseudo-documentary commentary in case we forget we’re watching this show in the spring of 2019? The real-life Rolling Thunder Revue began on October 30, 1975, more than a year after Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace. Yet Scorsese opens with scenes from the bicentennial summer of 1976, including a clip showing Nixon still in office, preaching to the nation about “American spirit.” It took a second viewing before I comprehended the travesty of Tricky Dick holding presidentially forth on America’s 200th birthday. I felt like yelling, “What’s he doing there?” For me, that’s Scorsese’s most flagrant twisting of the truth. In these trumpish times, it both helps and hurts to remember how deeply gratifying it was when Nixon and his cronies were brought to justice.

“It’s About Nothing”

The first and most important talking head, Dylan himself, says “I’m trying to get to the core of what this Rolling Thunder was about and I don’t have a clue. It’s about nothing, it’s just something that happened 40 years ago. I don’t remember a thing about Rolling Thunder — it happened so long ago, I wasn’t even born.”

That last remark, with its echo of the much quoted line “he not busy being born is busy dying,” sent me to Dylan’s 2004 memoir, Chronicles, Volume One, where one of the multiple “births” he describes is his discovery of blues singer Robert Johnson: “You have to wonder if Johnson was playing for an audience that only he could see, one off in the future. ‘The stuff I got’ll bust your brains out,’ he sings. Johnson is serious, like the scorched earth. There’s nothing clownish about him or his lyrics. I wanted to be like that, too.”

For sure there’s “nothing clownish” except the make-up about Dylan’s being “like that” in Rolling Thunder. One first-hand witness testifying to that is New Yorker editor David Remnick, who saw the Revue in late November 1975 as a high school student and remembers the “incredible fury” of Dylan belting out “Isis,” “the veins in his neck bulging, his eyes unblinking, sweat dripping through the white face paint, nothing held back.” Princeton University professor Sean Wilentz’s Bob Dylan in America (2010) features an eye-witness account of the night the future historian attended the Revue as a graduate student at Yale: “Above all, Dylan seemed to have a pent-up vehemence in his voice, at once elongating and spitting out” a line in “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” another of the film’s musical highlights. When he sang “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” Wilentz recalls, “it became even more obvious that Dylan’s vehemence was a matter of diction and enunciation” as he “made certain that no syllable of the ballad could be mistaken.” Wilentz also vividly communicates the excitement and confusion felt by a fan coming to songs from the not-yet-released LP Desire for the first time. It was then that things “began getting truly weird.” With the singing of “Isis,” which Wilentz heard as “Ices,” everything “went haywire”: “Dylan laid down his guitar, said something about ‘a true story,’ and proceeded to act out another new song that started out being about diamonds and the world’s biggest necklace” and became “incantatory, as if Dylan were half-reciting, half-shouting a bizarre short story.”

Writing three decades later, Wilentz concludes his chapter about the Rolling Thunder Revue with an emphasis on Dylan’s “own singing and dancing and miming — insistent, driven, attentive to stagecraft in ways that [he] had never been, renewing the old and, at his best, making the new sound old.”

High on Baez

If Dylan has a co-star in Scorsese’s film, it has to be, no surprise, Joan Baez, whose impact on his life and music is described at length in Chronicles, where she’s “very mature, seductive, intense, magical. Nothing she did didn’t work …. The sight of her made me high. All that and then there was her voice. A voice that drove out bad spirits. It was like she’d come down from another planet.” He repeats the other planet idea in the film and then brings her down to earth: “Lots of times when I’m sleeping I hear her voice.” For her part, Baez expresses amusement and affection, hinting at a novel’s worth of personal history when she says, “Everything is forgiven when I see him sing.”

Ginsberg Dancing

Allen Ginsberg haunts the film. Not that there’s anything ghostly about his presence. It’s only that seeing him makes you realize how much he’s missed and how much you wish he was around to help see us through this bizarre chapter in America’s story. When Dylan says “Ginsberg’s a good dancer,” Scorsese shows the poet doing just that. One of the film’s indispensable scenes is Dylan and Ginsberg’s visit to Jack Kerouac’s grave, where they celebrate the author of On the Road and read passages from his Mexico City Blues. Remnick’s favorite scene “comes when the tour alights on the Seacrest Hotel, in Falmouth, Massachusetts, where hundreds of women are engaged in a furiously contested, multi-table mah-jongg tournament. To the surprise of the players, who are intent on their game, someone gets up and announces that ‘one of America’s foremost poets, Mr. Allen Ginsberg,’ will read.” Ginsberg reads from Kaddish, his elegy to his mother, including unsparing passages about her “fatal decline, with all the gruesome particulars.” Although there are tears, “it is all too close to the bone. The women wince almost as one. It’s only when Dylan gets up to play a solo version of ‘Simple Twist of Fate’ on the piano, his fingers mashing the chords, his heel whacking the stage to keep time, that the mah-jongg ladies come alive.”

Why Now?

The Rolling Thunder chapter in Wilentz’s book is titled “Children of Paradise,” after Marcel Carné’s 1945 film, Les Enfants du Paradis, which influenced Dylan’s concept of the tour, most notably the use of the white face makeup of the film’s central chararcter, the mime Baptiste played by Jean-Louis Barrault. As Wilentz points out, the production was filmed in hiding during the Nazi occupation. The idea of a film celebrating art and theater and love at such a time reminds me of my reaction to the clip of Nixon in office with which Scorsese begins this wild, free-spirited counterculture road show celebration of hippiedom and rock and roll. Is it only a coincidence that Rolling Thunder with its fake-news framework comes to us with a lawless president in office, protected by the attorney general and the Republican occupation of the Senate? It’s interesting that footage from the mid-1970s has been packaged for release at this particular post-Mueller-Report moment in history.

Bob Dylan – The Rolling Thunder Revue: The 1975 Live Recordings, is available in a 14 CD boxed set.