Rolling Thunder: A Review
Hey, gang! It’s time for a Netflix review!!
No, it’s not a review of the latest season of “Stranger Things”….
…Ok…you’ve stuck around. Great. I just wanted to get that out of the way in case someone didn’t read the title of the article and thought it was code for a “Stranger Things” review. Yes, I know the current season is insanely good, and perhaps I’ll talk someone here at the GotS staff into writing a review of it shortly, but for the time being, I’ll be entertaining you all with my review of the latest Martin Scorsese documentary chronicling another chapter in the life of the mythic rock legend known as Bob Dylan.
Several years ago, Scorsese crafted an impeccable tale surrounding the early years of Bob Dylan’s historic career with his film “No Direction Home“. Filled with rarely seen footage from concerts and other moments in Dylan’s life as well as candid interviews with the man himself as well as some of main supporting characters from his life in the early 60s, such as Joan Baez, it was a tour de force of rock cinema, a sprawling yet intimate look at an enigmatic figure who has helped shape and direct modern music making for more than 50 years. I personally loved every minute of it, so there was no question that I was going to watch this new documentary as well.
It became even more “must see” for me when I found out it was going to be able the Rolling Thunder Revue, a circus like music tour that Dylan helped orchestrate in the mid 70s which is my favorite Dylan period as we’ll get to later in this write up.
And now that I’ve finally finished this 2 and a half hour rockumentary, I felt like I needed to share my thoughts on it for all my fellow Dylan fans or anyone else that just is interested in good music. Also given I watched most of this movie late at night after most of my family was asleep, I’m going to do the review in the style of my Insomniac Cult Movie Theater write ups, as I won’t lie, some of what I watched definitely amped me up a bit to the point where I just wanted throw on Dylan’s album “Desire” and crank it up until the wee hours…
Bob Dylan: Rolling Thunder Revue
The 70s were a turbulent yet extremely creative time in Dylan’s career. Struggling in his marriage to then wife Sara Dylan, Bob took solace in his music once again, delivering some of his most recognizable and well loved albums in a decade such as “Blood on the Tracks” and “Desire”. He also was busy reconnecting with old friends such as his old back up group that had gone on to have their own incredible success, the Band. He went on tour with them in 1974 which was the first time he had done so since he had gone electric and following tours in 1965 and 66 which nearly killed him.
As witnessed in just a sample of that tour that you can find on his Live Album “Before the Flood”, as well as other bootleg compilations, the energy and power that Dylan had in connecting with a live audience was still palpable. So there was no question that Dylan wanted to continue touring, but in what capacity?
The answer came in part in a re connection he had with another former collaborator and love interest, Joan Baez, as well as renown poet Allen Ginsberg. They would create a rock and roll revue show, like the traveling medicine shows of old, visiting towns up and down the Northeast, and delivering both music, poetry, and hopefully vision to a disenfranchised America that seemed lost in the wilderness following the Vietnam War and Watergate.
Bucking larger concert venues for smaller places such as gymnasiums, fire halls, and mahjong parlors, the artists hoped to evoke more of a “quality over quantity” approach with their audiences, giving those 3000+ people that could cram floor to ceiling in these places a more personal performance, something that would in turn resonate louder with them thus becoming a transformative experience. The show allowed for other musicians other than Dylan and Baez to join and fall off as they wished, and soon the Rolling Thunder Revue sported such names as Joni Mitchell, Roger Mcguinn of Byrds fame, Ronee Blakley, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliot.
Of course the entire tour was something of a disaster financially as the decision not to play bigger venues basically swallowed any potential profits that the tour could have made other wise. However, as Dylan said in the documentary, it was a complete success in terms of “being an adventure”, a life experience that he or many that participated in the tour wouldn’t have traded for anything.
It’s telling that in the years immediately following Rolling Thunder, Bob Dylan has yet to take a year off of touring and that continues to this day. So from my perspective, the impact of this tour can not be underestimated. It helped Dylan rediscover parts of himself as an artist that he had ignored for so many years. The need to connect with the audiences he was writing songs for, and that has not changed since.
2am Thoughts and Reflections:
First off, as those that know me, I’m a MONSTER Bob Dylan fan. He’s absolutely by far my favorite musician, artist, whatever you want to call it. I feel he’s hands down the best songwriter and lyricist in all of Rock ‘n Roll as well as beyond, being on the level of people like William Shakespeare in terms of the written verse, and I will fight you on that. Bare Knuckle if I have to.
I’ve seen him in concert about 10 times. I own pretty much every one of his albums. My daughter’s name comes from my favorite song of his “Visions of Johanna“, and the effect on my life his music has had can not be quantified. Therefore, as a fan, I super excited to watch this documentary as it deals with my favorite period of Dylan music: The 70s.
Although some may say the Golden Age of Dylan is from Freewheelin’ through Blonde on Blonde, I disagree. It’s the more mature Dylan from his Blood on the Tracks period which is really the good stuff. Mainly because it’s a sweet spot in the time after Nashville Skyline where he perfected his country crooning, but before his early 80s “Come to Jesus” stuff that sounds once again nasally. In short, his singing voice is the best during this period and given that can be a major turn off for some, his 70s stuff helps me convert more new fans into the Dylan camp than any other I have tried.
However, what I found when I was watching this documentary was that although it was really good at points possibly it wasn’t made for someone like me. And what I mean by that is a die hard fan. The reason I say this is it didn’t really do much to shed any other light on this particular period than I had not already learned about from reading Larry “Ratso” Sloman’s excellent book “On the Road with Bob Dylan” .
That book was all about the Rolling Thunder, it’s beginnings on the streets of Greenwich Village in late night music sessions Dylan had at his old haunts such as Kettle of Fish and the Gaslight. How it moved to being a spur of the moment somewhat ill conceived touring musical carnival, like so many other “brilliant” ideas groups of people have at 3am after a night of heavy drinking. How it evolved and devolved into the weird concert series that eventually it became and how it constantly was at odds with the traditional money making mentality of the record industry.
Yep, that was all in the book.
What’s more Mr. Sloman is actually in the documentary talking about some of the same things he did when he wrote the book as a correspondent for Rolling Stone so many years ago.
So in this way, the whole thing seemed like a retread to me, very much unlike the “No Direction Home” documentary which actually did shed new light on both Dylan and the relationships he had during his formative years as a musician.
I gotta say, the best parts of this were as a result, just the concert footage itself, which delivered some simply terrific versions of songs like Isis, One More Cup of Coffee, Hurricane, and Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall, and Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll. It was really nice to see some of those given I had never seen Renaldo and Clara which evidently contains at least some of this same footage. However, I will say, most of the recordings I had already heard at least from a musical sense thanks to the Bootleg Series: Volume 5 which was released years ago. Still though it was nice to put some visuals to those tunes and reinforced the fact that if there was ever a concert I wish I had a time machine to go back and see live, it would have been those ones.
Final Grade: B-
Boy, this is difficult for me as a Dylan fan. On one hand, I’m never going to give anything that is done by film legend Scorsese about music legend Bob Dylan anything lower than a “B”, just simply because I respect their work so much. However, I won’t lie that I didn’t find much in this movie that I didn’t already know about or find groundbreaking.
Even the new Dylan snippet like interviews that he cut, weren’t exactly grand, as he almost admitted in one of them that he wasn’t sure why they were trying to talk about Rolling Thunder in the first place, as there wasn’t much there. It again wasn’t like “No Direction Home” in which he was much more verbose about his feelings on the early days of his career and his music writing. It was almost as if he just phoned these interviews in and that left me cold. Its as if I could have learned more about Dylan by going back and listening to his old Sirius XM radio broadcasts (which are excellent btw).
I feel like the only thing worthwhile talked about in any of them was his relationship with Baez on the tour. Yeah, I’m a sucker for that stuff. I ship Dylan/Baez whenever I can get a chance. To me they are the true “OTP”, star crossed to a degree to where it was never going to work out but gosh you wish it had. They could have been like Johnny and June Carter Cash for God’s Sake!
Anyways, it was nice to hear the two of them talk respectfully and lovingly about each other and the impact they had on each others lives. Especially those comments about Bob being able to hear Joan’s voice in his sleep. That speaks volumes for me. It was also really nice to see some of that behind the scenes stuff like Joan dressing up like Dylan and trying to playfully trick stagehands into thinking she was him. That too speaks volumes if you listen to it right.
But in the end, I just was bored for most of this, so I can’t really give it any higher than a “B-“. For a Dylan fan like myself, that’s almost like giving it a “D” or an “F”, but I just can’t do that in my own mind for an artist that means so much to me. I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night.
But in closing, I will say that if you aren’t a really big Dylan fan, then you might actually like this whole thing a lot more than me. I know that seems contradictory, but again my boredom came out of hearing the same story that I had already heard about previously, and the disappointment out of not gaining some sort of new insight.
For those of you that just like Dylan in passing or fans of classic rock stories in general, this might be an excellent way to broaden your horizons and learn about this man that means so much to collective musical community during an interesting point of his life. From that perspective, I would highly recommend giving it a watch.