Conjuring The Rolling Thunder Re-vue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese


Bob Dylan on stage, 1975, © Ken Regan and courtesy Sony Music Entertainment

Conjuring The Rolling Thunder Re-vue: A Bob Dylan Movie by Martin Scorsese

Netflix, June 11, 2019

*nota bene: this review contains spoilers. Please see the movie first.

The title comes first, and you should read it carefully.  If you’re expecting a gritty documentary of the brief months of Bob Dylan and company’s two-part Rolling Thunder Revue tour, change your expectations utterly.  This film is “a Bob Dylan movie” assembled by Martin Scorsese out of documentary footage taken at the time by Howard Alk’s cameramen (not all of whom are credited — and some of the Alk footage has here been altered), contemporary interviews with Dylan and others, and fragments and splinters from newsreels of 1975 and 1976, and far earlier cinema-history footage from the earliest days of the medium.  It’s specifically a “re-vue” — that is, a seeing again, a backward glance. In French revue stems from revoir, to see anew, as well as bearing the meanings of revisiting something to modify it and correct errors, and, in the colloquial, an entertainment made up of theater, song, and other varied acts or skits that might have a contemporary cultural or political relevance.  Foremost, though, is the sense of revue as a conjuring — a magic act, a trick, the summoning up of spirits past, a séance, raising the dead.

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October, November, Dylan might have some idea to do something, sort of like a con-man carny medicine show of old, where you just get in a bus…or carriage, and go from town to town. It is like Dylan is taking us out to try and give us each — he’s presenting us. I mean, that’s his conception, mm, it hasn’t been made overt. His idea is to show how beautiful he is by showing how beautiful we are by showing how beautiful the ensemble is. So it’s to show the actual community, which is the way life is, the way life of poets is.

                                     — Allen Ginsberg, 1975

“I don’t remember a thing about Rolling Thunder. I mean, it happened so long ago I wasn’t even born. So whattaya want to know?”

                                     — Bob Dylan, recent interview

When America was in the throes of celebrating its bicentennial in 1976, I was a girl.  My American historian father told me the whole “bicentennial” was an inaccurate premise and explained the reasons, but I didn’t care at the time. It was too much fun for a kid, reveling in all the jingoism and fool-catcher collectibles, and embracing same as both historical and authentic.  Conjuring The Rolling Thunder Re-vue begins in that welter of the bicentennial, though Scorsese extends his frame from 1974 to 1976 without clear differentiations; you have to remember your history or it’s all conflated.  Or, perhaps, the conflation and confusion is the point.  Remember Forrest Gump, where fact and fiction, documentary footage and material newly made to document the cultural times, all mix?  Scorsese remembers it, and countless other movies like it, too.

The Rolling Thunder Revue began on October 30, 1975 and ended on May 25, 1976, with a gap between two very separate legs of the tour.  Conjuring The Rolling Thunder Re-vue is set, if that’s the correct way to think about it, in only the first leg of the tour.  The first extended footage you see is not of any concert, though, but is newsreel in muted color. Pumper tugs spray water in front of the Statue of Liberty, and tall-ship masts fill the Hudson River. It is July 1976 in New York City — months after Rolling Thunder had ended.  Paradoxes abound. Honestly, in light of the fictions and alterations in Scorsese’s film overall, I had to wonder if any of this has been altered, or shot new to look old.  In black and white newsreel-style, an African-American vendor, announcing “Patriotic is not the real feeling I have right now,” is just there to sell the people what they want. A man calling himself Uncle Sam, with the appropriate striped top hat, incongruously waving the Confederate battle flag amidst the carnival, is suddenly and terrifyingly contemporary.   Then into color again comes Dylan onstage, his eyes nightmare wide and ringed in kohl, his hat a Carmen Miranda dream with trembling baby’s breath and pink and green. “Mr. Tambourine Man” begins to play, softly, and Dylan’s face gives way to that of the last President who resigned, Richard Milhous Nixon. Nixon starts to speak as Dylan near-sighs “my weariness amazes me.” 

That Nixon resigned in August 1974, the bicentennial festival you’ve been watching happened around the 4th of July 1976, and Dylan is performing his song on stage in late 1975 are facts.  You are not watching a movie of fact; you are not watching a documentary. Did not the opening credits footage from The Vanishing Woman, George Méliès’s short of 1896, in which the filmmaker himself plays the magician, set you up for this?  A man once sang a line about your useless and pointless knowledge.  Suspend your disbelief and beliefs alike, and just watch, and enjoy. Scorsese’s movie is an artistic project; respect it as such.

Contemporary interviews with Dylan himself are deployed to great effect early on. He begins, as does the film, with the history of the times, talking about the way in which “America was chased out of Vietnam in such a humiliating way,” how two people — Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, a follower of Charles Manson, and Sara Jane Moore — both tried to shoot the president in the same month (September 1976).  He then addresses the idea of heading out into this chaotic America with a chaotic entertainment — as Ginsberg rightly said of Dylan, “he liked the chaos.” The entertainment, inspired by commedia dell’arte, Jim Kweskin’s jug band, Marcel Carné’s Les Enfants du Paradis (1945), vaudeville, and minstrel and medicine shows, was to be in the “traditional, um, form of a revue,” Dylan says. He instantly and rather charmingly condemns the comment as “clumsy bullshit.” He’s playing a character here, and never forget it, as you listen to any of these interviews. They are all playing characters, as you’ll see confirmed in the closing credits. This is “Bob Dylan,” the retrospective artist surveying a younger self, as suspect in the act as is any autobiographer or memoirist.

Scorsese's movie does follow the tour historically, as Sam Shepard’s The Rolling Thunder Logbook (1977) can easily confirm.  Here are just a handful of examples.  Shepard, a Greenwich Village contemporary of Dylan’s from the earliest days, Patti Smith’s ex, sometime Holy Modal Rounder drummer, and playwright, had abandoned New York City by autumn 1975 for London, and then Mill Valley, California — whence Dylan summoned him to write a movie, and keep a diary, during the tour a week before the show was to hit the road.  He was welcomed by Louie Kemp, the tour’s overseer (it would be wrong to call him an organizer), who told Shepard about the “Gerty’s Folk City” homecoming he’d missed the night before.  “’We got some great stuff on film.  Bette Midler was terrific,’” Shepard quotes Kemp as saying.  Sure enough, as his movie begins, Scorsese tracks this scene, and many subsequent ones in the chronological order that Shepard particularly details.  In the scene at Gerde’s, there’s Midler, biting her fingernail, swiping Dylan’s hat.  (Her husband since 1984, performance artist Martin von Haselberg, is central to Scorsese’s “Bob Dylan film” as the putative filmmaker “Stefan van Dorp.”  More about this in a moment). Similarly, Shepard refers early on to Ramblin’ Jack Elliot is “swimming in his tall white hat” and vividly recounts the scene of Jack invading the full-size waxwork recreation of the landing of the Mayflower at Plymouth, Massachusetts, sitting in a little Pilgrim landing boat:  “Jack has a great idea. He breaks out his guitar and sings an old sea chanty to the kids from the midst of the wax dummies.” We see that scene from Howard Alk’s footage; and Dylan in his contemporary interview calls Elliot a “sailor.”  Most importantly, Shepard loves writing about Allen Ginsberg, and Ginsberg, though his planned role on stage in the Revue was almost entirely eliminated, is to my mind the star of Scorsese’s movie. 

As the Revue hits the road, Dylan’s bus driving is his version of Neal Cassady behind the wheel of good old “Further,” make no mistake. When Bob spins that steering wheel and says, “Boy, I sure hope we get to Boston on time,” he even sounds like he’s doing a Neal voice.  The Rolling Thunder Revue was most assuredly, among the many other things it also was, a re-creation of the recreation that was the Merry Pranksters and their 1964 American tour.  Ginsberg’s presence, and the famous visit he and Dylan make to Kerouac’s grave — Scorsese wisely includes Alk’s truly beautiful footage of that visit — bring this truth strongly home.

Shepard is one of the participants in the Revue to be interviewed many years later; along with him, Dylan, and Elliot, David Mansfield, Ronee Blakely, Joan Baez, Larry “Ratso” Sloman, and Roger McGuinn also appear. Bobby Neuwirth is strangely absent in these contemporary interviews, as is Rob Stoner, who Shepard called the “brains behind the operation. The get-it-together man[.]” Scarlet Rivera, Dylan’s best duetting partner on the Revue, is also absent, but it comports with her onstage silence.  “I let the violin speak for me,” she has said. Scorsese makes up for this by showcasing Rivera as she deserves to be in the concert footage, and in what others say of her. Asked about her in the present day, Dylan smiles. “She didn’t say much, but she didn’t have to.”  There is one lovely clip of Rivera speaking, calmly and mystically, about constructions of time while she is sailing along a country road toward the departing tour buses in Albert Grossman’s Rolls-Royce.

The scenes taken from Alk’s filming, featuring members of Guam (the Revue band) and visiting artists, are as democratic as was the tour.  Performers and backup personnel mix and mingle, at least as it’s shown by Scorsese; this was not, during the Revue, as true as it looks in his movie.  For all the footage of Rivera, I wanted more. She is so integral to the sound of the songs on stage, and her ability follow and complement Dylan’s vocal phrasing is untouchable.  Filmmaker and photographer Jack Baran, who was line producer on Renaldo and Clara and played “the truck driver” in it, and who is also big Jack from the Bronx in Shepard’s logbook, shines in a funny scene where he hands a leaflet for the Plymouth concert to a woman in Pilgrim-era dress.  She shrugs, and tells him she’s too old for this sort of thing. (Shepard wrote that the “old women…in Pilgrim outfits” stood “behind counters in counterfeit buildings” complaining about the little white bonnets, but they didn’t “dare take them off in case the inspectors come around”).  Rob Stoner and Howie Wyeth, bandmates in their own band before they joined the Revue, show in their brief cameos how much they brought to the stage. Wyeth, born into America’s most celebrated dynasty of 20th-century painters (N.C. was his grandfather, Andrew his uncle, and Jamie his cousin), leans into his drums — and occasionally keyboards — with a beatific smile just showing under the brim of a perpetual cloth cap. Shepard said that Stoner “[g]rafted harmonies onto Dylan like a Siamese twin,” and it’s lovely to watch him doing it live.  

Director, songwriter and psychologist Jacques Levy, an old friend of McGuinn’s who had written “Chestnut Mare” with him, co-wrote with Dylan several of the songs showcased during the Revue. “[Dylan] liked the idea that I could tell a story,” said Levy in a 2004 interview. Dylan had come over to Levy’s house upon his return from France in the summer of 1975, after spending his birthday at the festival of St. Sarah the Black Madonna, “Sara-la-Kali,” in Saintes Maries de la Mer, France.  Dylan talks about going to this Roma sacred festival for Scorsese’s movie, as clips from the 1993 documentary Latcho Drom play. He showed up at Levy’s house with a new song, “One More Cup of Coffee” and a part of “Sara.”  They wrote “Isis” that day, Levy recalled, and finished writing “Hurricane,” “Mozambique,” “Oh Sister,” “Joey,” “Romance in Durango,” and “Black Diamond Bay” at Dylan’s rented house on Lily Pond Lane in East Hampton by summer’s end. Said Levy, “I would type out the lyrics, and then he’d work on them.”  Dylan sang-chanted a lyric of one new song in the corner of a bar in town to a stunned stranger, Levy recalled, laughing. In Scorsese’s movie, Levy smiles from the edge of scenes as performers ebb and flow. You have to know it is he, though, and so I remind you of his importance to the music here.

"One More Cup of Coffee," live 

“Stefan van Dorp” and Sharon Stone occupy a lot of time in Scorsese’s movie.  They were not on the tour; van Dorp did not exist at all, until Scorsese made him be.  “Stefan van Dorp” is, in Scorsese’s movie, “The Filmmaker” who shot the hundreds of hours of Rolling Thunder footage.  He is a role created for the 2019 movie alone, and played brilliantly by Martin von Haselberg.  A better way of thinking of him, perhaps, for understanding this movie is to find in van Dorp the avatar of those who kept the cameras running almost constantly during the tour.  This could be perceived as insulting to Howard Alk, Jack Baran, Paul Goldsmith and the other men preserving everything from whole concerts to meals to hijinks on the bus and the wacky evolving and devolving scenes of Renaldo and Clara; at any rate, it has certainly rankled Dylan fans.  I’m not sure why. Conjuring The Rolling Thunder Re-vue never claimed to be a documentary, and careful preview reviews didn’t use the word. However, a "documentary" in strictest definition means to document a particular event, circumstance, personality, or time.  Documentaries regularly feature voice-overs and present-day narration.  Scorsese seeks to document the cultural milieu of the Revue, and not just the tour and performances themselves.  Conjuring the Rolling Thunder Re-vue reframes the tour in context with those troubled American days, and very much in keeping with what those times were like. 

But, you cry, at one point Dylan, in the Alk footage, addresses a cameraman as “van Dorp.” He has a towel pressed against his face, partly muffling his mouth.  The words have been dubbed in by Scorsese to fit the scene for purposes of his new movie, though they do seem to be in Dylan’s voice.  And, you cry, in the fall of 1975 Stone was a 17-year-old beauty pageant winner living in Meadville, Pennsylvania.  She never even met Dylan in those days.  Dylan claims she came to see a show with her mother; Stone recounts joining the tour as a makeup artist and costumier, and weeping when Dylan played her “Just Like A Woman” after claiming to have written it for her.  All this, and the presence of KISS and Gene Simmons, whose glam-rock look and whiteface Dylan claims to have “filed …away,” is a con.  As my friend @HarryHew succinctly put it, “In his interview segments, [Dylan] refers to the make-believe Mr. van Dorp, and to a multitude of other fictions. Bob wasn't driving but he was darn sure along for the ride.”

When I first watched the movie at a press screening in New York back in May, I was baffled by van Dorp, but loved his commentary on the tour anyway.  I was similarly puzzled by Stone, having never heard before of any connection between her and the Revue. Surely, if this knockout young girl, soon to be famous, had been on the tour as a makeup artist, Sloman or Shepard would have noted and mentioned her at the time? And that story would already long have been out in the world? I’d never heard of a Congressman Jack Tanner, a good friend of President Jimmy Carter’s, either — Google found no such person, when I got home that night. Fine, I thought, it’s all some sort of fictional framing device meant to showcase things: van Dorp is not just “The Filmmaker” but all the filmmakers; the character Stone is playing is all the “Beauty Queens” who trailed in Dylan’s wizardy wake; Tanner, played by actor Michael Murphy, for the wave of young American politicians enthusiastically trying to redeem the country after Watergate and Vietnam. 

Remember what Ginsberg said? “A con-man carny medicine show.” Dylan himself states at one point “We didn’t have enough masks for that tour” — and Scorsese, in agreement, has created more in these fictitious characters. But all the made-up, new content actually stands in for the truth, if you have to be seeking the truth, in a particular way.  Here’s what I mean. Mick Ronson spearheaded the makeup-wearing in the band, as Shepard says. We have Mick to thank for the passionate intensity of the eyeliner, and the rambling crew of hoboes stepping up their wardrobes until the Rolling Thunder Revue was on an absolute glampage every time Guam took the stage.  However, Simmons, still alive and with us, stands in here for Ronson, who is not.  That is how the “fake” characters work for Scorsese: they’re stand-ins, the grinning and blinking costumed characters who represent real people.  Van Dorp stands in for Alk and every cameraman filming the Revue, and, I think, for “stage manager” Levy too. You can read about all the girls and women who followed the Revue in Shepard’s logbook, Dylan biographies, Baez’s autobiography, Sloman’s accounts, and everything else that’s been written about the Rolling Thunder Revue.  Stone can bear their weight: with her sly sexy smile, groomed blond hair, elegant athletic arms, and gemstone eyes, she represents the ladies all.  Think of it this way, instead of feeling angry or lied to, and you’ll be both closer to and more impressed with Scorsese’s art.

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We phantoms are assembled at the end of the Rolling Thunder Tour.  We started out trying to recover America. We discovered a certain amount of truth about ourselves. Old friends who thought their loves had been lost were able to get together and face each other eye-to-eye and sing over an electrical microphone to please the desires of a myriad of young yearners who had been seeking some kind of union and community and saw there an image of that community.

                        — Allen Ginsberg, 1975

The live performances from Alk’s footage are astounding. “Isis” is sheer raging glory.  Wrote Shepard, “He becomes a Haitian devil dancer on ‘Isis,’ holding his hat like it’s about to take off in a tornado.” Watch and listen as it happens. When Dylan sings “The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” Peter LaFarge’s 1964 ballad of the Native soldier who helped raise the American flag at Iwo Jima, in a gymnasium on the Tuscarora reservation, he turns in a grave and stately tribute.  Some day, there should be a full-tilt concert movie made, giving us the entire songs that are excerpted here (“Mr. Tambourine Man” is a perfect example).  Almost all we get of the onstage performances in Conjuring the Rolling Thunder Re-vue are Dylan’s — those openers of Neuwirth’s, Burnett’s “Foreign Love,” Stoner’s “Wasted,” Ronson’s and Baez’s and Elliott’s sets were filmed, but are not here.  However, as is to be expected in a “Bob Dylan movie,” the emphasis is on the frontman.

One guest is a star, and illuminated as such.  As the tour buses rock and ramble the roads, with renditions of “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and “Love Potion #9” filling the narrow passageways, Joni Mitchell makes an island of calm and beauty as she writes, possibly for Shepard (her lover at the time), “Coyote.” Her later performance of the song with McGuinn and Dylan, in Gordon Lightfoot’s apartment in Toronto, is a show-stopper. Dylan smiles a downturned smile, happy to play accompaniment as he listens. Rubin “Hurricane” Carter is also memorably featured in a relatively recent interview (he died in 2014), talking about what Dylan’s and Levy’s song meant in gaining his freedom. In one of the few large-venue shows on the tour, the Revue played a benefit concert for Carter in New York at Madison Square Garden. The phenomenal performance of “Hurricane” from the night of December 8, 1975 is featured here; Scorsese’s decision to fade it on the line “now all the criminals in their coats and their ties” is one of the only things I truly hate.

Other Revue guests who were old friends and bandmates, like Rick Danko, are not here. Perhaps most notably, Sara Dylan is not here. She visited the tour briefly in Niagara Falls, and at that point several people left, including the young woman who had created The Hat for Dylan.  In the few scenes in which she appeared in Alk’s footage, or Ken Regan’s photographs, Sara has been literally erased.  Dylan’s children and mother were also around for Thanksgiving in a Holiday Inn in Bangor, Maine, the little Dylans “kicking dozens of colored balloons past the waitresses’ heads,” Shepard writes.  They’re not in Scorsese’s film, and there's no good reason why they should be. They were not performers; they were not in the Revue. 

Bob Dylan has never liked his work to be monumental. The Rolling Thunder Revue has been much chronicled, and has come to be viewed by many as a high point of his long and continuing career — a time when, after years of being a singular star, then hiding from the public eye and raising his children, he chose to put himself forth at the heart of a rambling crew of performers in small places, thereby reinventing himself.  Scorsese’s movie refuses to treat the Revue as preserved in a museum or archive, set in stone, or sacred.  That’s the larger point, I believe, of the “fake” characters, doctored documentary footage, cuts and splices, and contemporary interviews.  I’ll borrow my final words on the facts and fictions of Conjuring the Rolling Thunder Re-vue from the master, Sam Shepard. Of Dylan and the whole artistic project of the Revue, and of Renaldo and Clara, Shepard said, “the repercussions of his art don’t have to be answered by him at all. They fall on us as questions and that’s where they belong.” Apply the same words to Scorsese — and to Dylan — today. That’s entertainment. Revel.

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“What remains of that tour to this day? Nothing. Not one single thing. Ashes.” Dylan states with a poker face.  Immediately, the film swings into a stunning moment of him forty years and more ago.  Rivera, with her silvery fiddle and eyes that never leave him, and McGuinn, with the hair and floppy tie and long coat of an 18th century squire, accompany him on “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.”  That is what remains: not ashes, but the music they made, and the way they made it at the time, captured as well as film could capture it for time to come.  Allen Ginsberg confirms this in a lovely, moving coda before the song resumes, and concludes:

“You, who saw it all, or saw flashes and fragments, take from us some 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 for your own eternity.”

The Rolling Thunder Revue band, “Guam,” 1975:

Bobby Neuwirth, guitar and vocals

Scarlet Rivera, violin

T Bone Burnett, guitar and vocals

Steven Soles, guitar and vocals

Mick Ronson, guitar

David Mansfield, mandolin, violin, dobro and steel guitar

Rob Stoner, bass and vocals

Howie Wyeth, drums and piano

Luther Rix, percussion

Ronee Blakely, vocals

Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, guitar and vocals

Allen Ginsberg, vocals and finger cymbals

Joni Mitchell, vocals

this full review was originally published in Bob Dylan ISIS Magazine

© Anne Margaret Daniel 2019