“Hey Mr tambourine man play a song for me” sings Bob Dylan at one of his shows during the Rolling Thunder Revue tour and makes a fitting start for the Netflix documentary Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan story by Martin Scorsese.
The documentary centers around the Rolling Thunder Revue tour in 1975, hence the name. The purpose of the tour was to play for the people of America in smaller venues in smaller towns to create an intimacy with his audience. Previously, Dylan was touring with The Band and he felt that it was nothing but forceful so he wanted to loosen up by gathering a group of musicians, poets and friends to “show how beautiful he is by showing how beautiful we are by showing how beautiful the ensemble is. So it’s showing the community” said poet Allen Ginsberg in the documentary.
The name Rolling Thunder Revue came to light when Dylan heard the thunder where he was living at the time in Greenwich Village, New York City. This is where he also collected local folk musicians and Beat Generation figures to form a tour. He formed the band Guam which featured Bob Neuwirth, Mick Ronson, T Bone Burnett, Steven Soles, David Mansfield, Rob Stoner, Scarlet Rivera, Howie Wyeth, Luther Rix and Ronee Blakley. Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Roger McGuinn and Ramblin’ Jack Elliot performed also. The documentary shows footage of the band jamming in rehearsals which looked enjoyable. It also features sights of Patti Smith and Bette Midler and more special guests.
Throughout the tour the folk singer can be seen wearing white paint on his face, occasionally he’d wear a mask which he’d have to take off anyway to play his harmonica. A hat decorated with fresh flowers, a scarf around his neck and a white long sleeved shirt with a vest. When discussing the mask, Dylan says “when somebody’s wearing a mask, he’s going to tell the truth. When he’s not wearing a mask, it’s highly unlikely.”
The white paint idea was apparently inspired by a 19-year-old Sharon Stone wearing a Kiss shirt, who was at one of the shows with her mother. Dylan was then attracted to the idea of wearing white paint on his face. A funny moment in the documentary shows Baez literally putting herself in Dylan’s shoes by wearing his outfit and imitating him backstage in order to see how he was treated by the others.
The shows themselves consisted of three to four hours of entertainment featuring different acts during the show. The album Desire was recorded by late 1975 but yet to be realised in January 1976. When Dylan was performing on stage he was clearly passionate which is shown through the superb camera work. Encouraged by Jacques Levy and Patti Smith, Dylan can be seen to be more physically expressive especially when performing songs without his guitar. There wasn’t a strict routine although they did rehearse the songs. Night after night, tempos and attitudes changed and grew stronger which is shown through songs like A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, Isis, One More Cup of Coffee (Valley Below), Blowin’ In the Wind and more great songs.
The duets between Baez and Dylan revoked nostalgia of their past music collaborations and romance as it was the first time anyone had seen them together in 10 years. “Everything is forgiven when I see Bob sing. It’s the charisma he has I’ve never seen anywhere” says Baez. The bond between the two is shown in the documentary as they harmonise side by side into the microphone, their closeness and the way they talk about each other. At one point in the film an audience member shouts “You’re a lovely couple!” The duo laughs as Baez says “Don’t make myths!” with a quick “a couple of what?” response.
Playwright Sam Shepard along with David Myers and Howard Alk were hired to create a screenplay for the tour which ended up being Ronaldo & Clara. The film was a flunk and showed some footage of the shows and other shots. Martin Scorsese used some of the footages and outtakes from the film. There are new interviews filmed today for the documentary and some old. They discuss being on tour with the folk legend, the tensions happening backstage when people were trying to compete for “their time in the sun” explained Ronee Blakley. There was also tension with Rolling Stone reporter Larry “Ratso” Sloman. Dylan had a gypsy caravan like vision for the tour so as you can imagine there were a lot of people with different personalities and stories.
Another refreshing sight to see was seeing people hand out pamphlets about the shows in small towns to people out on the street. Dylan wanted to announce the shows without warning and with very little advertising days before every show. “How come he’s coming here?” asks a young fan on the street. “Yeah, how come he picked such a small place” says another.
Obviously one of the biggest highlights of the film was the story of the hurricane. Ruben Carter, the African-American boxer who could’ve been the champion of the world but was instead locked up for a crime he didn’t commit because of his race. Dylan was extremely passionate about getting him out and spreading the word of his innocence to the world through his song Hurricane. “You can help us get this man out of jail” Dylan says to his audience before performing the fiery protest song.
Photo by Ken Regan
The documentary had a sense of warmth to it. “Mr tambourine man gives us the opportunity to be whoever we wish to be” says Rivera. It’s jam packed full of Rolling Thunder memories and makes you want to build a time machine to go back in time and see the tour or to be part of it. The rare interview with the man himself, Bob Dylan is another treat to the film. “It wasn’t a success, not if you measure success in terms of profit” Dylan reflects.
The tour comes to an end and the philosophical sage, Allen Ginsberg looks into the camera with the music of Dylan performing Knockin’ On Heavens Door in the background. Ginsberg says “You, who saw it all or saw flashes and fragments can take from us an example. Try and get yourselves together. Clean up your act. Find your community. Pick up on some kind of redemption of your own consciousness, become more mindful of your own friends, your own work, your own proper meditation, your own proper art, your own beauty. Go out and make it your own…”
Written by Alicia Ogley