No other filmmaker has married his dueling passions for cinema and music like Martin Scorsese. Just think about the way he used the Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” in Mean Streets or “Gimme Shelter” in Goodfellas. And then there are his masterclass documentaries like The Last Waltz. It’s a given that Scorsese’s knowledge of film history is encyclopedic, but it’s also fair to assume that the guy probably has a vinyl collection to match.
In his powerful and playful new film, Rolling Thunder Revue, Scorsese invites us to ride shotgun in his wayback machine to 1975 — a time when America was still licking its Vietnam and Watergate wounds on the way to its star-spangled bicentennial. The country needed the healing power of rock n’ roll more than ever. Then, along came Bob Dylan, like a barnstorming carny barker with a wild band of oddballs (Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Allen Ginsberg, Joni Mitchell), offering live-wire salvation.
Dylan’s Rolling Thunder tour played small venues, electrifying audiences with old classics (“Knocking on Heaven’s Door”) as well as songs from the soon-to-be-released Desire (“Hurricane”). Scorsese, really acting more as an editor than a director here, mixes archival concert footage (featuring Dylan in white kabuki face-paint and sporting a wide-brimmed hat with a peacock feather) with merry-prankster contemporary interviews that play fast and loose with the facts.
As for the 77-year-old Dylan himself, he’s at turns introspective, grumpy, and characteristically misleading. Scorsese has peppered the film with playful little jokes and fictions that some Dylanologists will savor as exciting Easter eggs. But the real-life story behind the tour (not to mention the music performed nightly on it) is so fascinating it doesn’t need all of the narrative trickery. It occasionally feels too clever by half. But before you can object, there’s Dylan, mime-faced and re-energized, singing a poignant duet with ex-flame Joan Baez or blistering through “Isis” to knock you right back on your heels. The Rolling Thunder Revue was Dylan’s personal magical mystery tour — and in Scorsese’s hands, there’s no shortage of magic or mystery.