This unclassifiable documentary continually surprises you at every turn. “Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese” highlights Dylan and company’s troubadour-like 1975 tour, which included violinist Scarlet Rivera and guitarist Mick Ronson, as they played gigs across America. The venues were smaller, barely any money was made, but in a country torn by Watergate, a never-ending war and the end of flower power, the healing power of music and camaraderie was needed not just for audiences but for the musicians themselves.
With Dylan on stage, hat festered with flowers, face covered in white paint, and armed with the kind of sublime voice he would never again be able to match in his career, ‘Revue’ guides us through a time-capsule-worthy moment when America had all but lost its identity. And so, when Dylan performs his classics such as “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” “Simple Twist of Fate” and “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” it feels like there’s an extra oomph to the contours, a revelatory side that these already brilliant songs didn’t previously have.
As it happens, at the time of the tour, a 34-year-old Dylan was also working on his last truly great album, for a long while at least, “Desire,” and the songs from that album, rough and straight out of the studio, encompass a big chunk of the performances here. Aided by Rivera’s weeping fiddle, songs like “One More Cup of Coffee,” and “Oh, Sister” damn-near break your heart. “Hurricane”— a protest song which all but overhauled the murder conviction of imprisoned boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter — coincides with a poignant and surprisingly humorous interview from Carter himself.
The grand megilah, for Dylan diehards at least, will be the musician’s first interview in over 10 years. Dylan, looking raggedly mysterious, elaborates the proceedings with the same kind of deep philosophical ambiguity he’s always been known to give out. With the help of a gorgeous restoration of previously abandoned footage from the Rolling Thunder Revue tour, Scorsese also uses moments lifted from Dylan’s 1978 film, Renaldo and Clara, a fictionalized account of his own life— also interjected into the proceedings are scenes from the 1945 French masterpiece “Children of Paradise,” and footage from a pilgrimage Dylan and poet Allen Ginsberg took to the grave of Jack Kerouac. There’s also Sharon Stone, of all people, showing up as herself, recounting her own experiences of the tour as a groupie. Did it even happen? Who knows. This blend of fact and fiction is wholeheartedly confusing but effervescently captures the spirit and mystery of Dylan.
Scorsese delivers a document that is part tour diary, part surreal narrative but a totally absorbing 142 minute mesmerizer. The whole thing feels like an indescribable fever-dream, a way for its maker to conjure up what it may have felt like to be in Dylan’s head back in 1975. Don’t bother calling this one a Rockumentary, it’s in a genre and class all by itself. [B+]