“Life isn’t about finding yourself or finding anything. Life is about creating yourself and creating things.”
Beloved American folk artist Bob Dylan drops that quote six minutes into “Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese,” the new, currently-streaming Netflix documentary about the infamous mid-’70s tour. It’s a striking quote, mainly for its self-awareness: Dylan’s a man of many masks, a perplexing outsider that we lionize and idealize, but will never really understand — a longtime world-famous musician that no one can get a read on. An enigma.
It’s also a striking quote because it’s not from vintage footage — it’s from a rare recent interview, and it’s a moment of directness in a documentary that’s clouded in riddles. The film, on the surface, is an insider’s view of the Rolling Thunder Revue tour. In 1975 and 1976, Dylan hit the road with Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Roger McGuinn, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot and whole other cast of characters that formed a motley crew to tour by bus and play small venues. Underneath, it’s every bit as complicated as Dylan himself.
In the same interview, when Dylan is asked to recall the tour itself, he gives a much more vague, deflecting and, frankly, expected answer. Here’s a transcript of a conversation between someone off the screen and Dylan.
Dylan: “The idea was to put a tour, a combination of different acts, on the same stage, for a variety of musical styles. I wouldn’t say it was a traditional revue, but it was in the traditional form of a revue … That’s all clumsy bullshit.”
Dylan: “I’m trying to get to the core of what this Rolling Thunder thing is all about, and I don’t have a clue, because it’s about nothing. It’s just something that happened 40 years ago. And that’s the truth of it.”
Off-screen voice: “And why don’t we go down that road?”
Dylan: “Ok, we can. Let’s go.”
Off-screen voice: “Alright. Let’s go.”
Dylan: “I don’t remember a thing about Rolling Thunder. I mean, it happened so long ago, I wasn’t even born. So, what do you want to know?”
This all happens within the first 10 minutes of the film. What follows is a strange, winding and highly satisfying ride that features an incredible amount of footage from the tour, a great soundtrack and even some purposeful, but tricky, fictional elements that have already been reported by publications like Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair.
The documentary creates more questions than answers if you’re looking for insight into Dylan’s personal life or mindset at the time, but it really draws the viewer into the atmosphere and rhythm of the Rolling Thunder Revue, which seemed part modern rock tour, part traveling carnival. The whole group was composed of talented and compelling oddballs, like beat poet Allen Ginsberg and violinist Scarlet Rivera — fascinating, almost surreal people, both in terms of their craft and their mind.
Joni Mitchell more successfully gets to the heart of what the tour was about. For a brief moment of the shown ’70s footage, she speaks about the fascinating communal aspect of the Rolling Thunder Revue, like it was a way for famous, successful musicians to escape expectations for a little while and run away and join some high-functioning circus. Ginsberg also takes a swing at the tour’s subconscious purpose. He thought they went out looking for America and instead found out something about themselves, and their ability to find redemption in their relationships.
While the documentary leans heavily on the characters involved in the Rolling Thunder Revue, the captured concerts show Dylan’s brilliant ability to twist songs in so many different directions, a versatility that has perpetually been definitive of his live show, and something that was at its peak throughout the early and mid-’70s. It seems that what made this tour so special, and what this documentary captures so well, is the charisma and visceral energy, an urgency that seemed to form from the fellowship of peers and their proximity to the audience. This was their way to be both The Merry Pranksters and rambling country blues troubadours from a bygone era.
Kurt Vonnegut once wrote, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” Over the years, Bob Dylan has bobbed and weaved so swiftly and so obscurely with his personality that his identity seems to develop in chapters and legends — more like a character from a series of short stories than a real person. “Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese” will only add to the mythology. And that’s ok. Dylan’s always been an unsolved puzzle. And whether it’s on purpose or by accident, it’s probably what makes him an artistic and marketing genius.