Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story By Martin Scorsese tells you everything you need to know about in its title. Nowhere do we see the word documentary and no where does Martin Scorsese advertise it as one. Rolling Thunder can be described in a plethora of different ways. One could call it an experimental story told in a way that mixes reality with fiction such that the difference between the two becomes unimportant. You could say it is a tad on the indulgent side and could, in certain respects, come off a bit like a cinematic prank. You could even say it seems Scorsese and Dylan decided to make the Documentary Now parody of the film before Seth Myers and team had a chance to. All of this would be true and that is what makes Rolling Thunder such a good time, because at the end of the day, you could also describe it as a brilliantly edited homage to 1970’s America.
Cinema is already jam packed with films that have a fair deal to say about the 1970’s. It is an inescapably large sub-genre that Scorsese himself already has a few entries in. Rolling Thunder fits neatly alongside them. It creates a narrative predicated in equal parts on fact and fiction in a way that is reminiscent of 1969’s Medium Cool. It uses it camera and editing as a sneaky eye peering behind the art and into the souls of the people who make it in a way that is not un similar to 1970’s Gimme Shelter. The concert footage is fun and the cinematography gravitates towards the charismatic presence of 1975 Dylan just as the crowd does. The personalities behind the scenes and aboard the tour bus are all given fair and equal exploration throughout the intimidating, yet surprisingly well paced, two hours and thirty five minutes. By the time you get to Dylan and Alan Ginsberg discussing the works of Jack Kerouac over his gravestone while Dylan plays a somber melody on a pocket sized organ, you begin to wonder if you are still watching reality or an LSD fueled entry into the spirit behind the man. In lesser hands, the blatant fiction and performance art would seem like a film trying too hard. In Rolling Thunder, it never does. It feels all the more real, because Dylan himself, a man notorious for lying about small things for reasons we are still unsure of to this day, co-sponsors it by getting in on the action. It is fun and packs more than a few laughs. Especially the bits with Sharon Stone, who lends an incredible performance and really great comedic timing in her short contribution to one of the more overtly mockumentary portions of the film. Dylan is never afraid to poke a bit of fun at himself and neither is Scorsese. Scenes like the genesis of the Rolling Thunder title and Dylan socializing at a party are self referential fun that never feels out of place in the refreshingly relaxed tone of the film.
Overall, the film does not avoid all 1970’s cliches. The voiceover of Nixon’s resignation feels disappointingly predictable and references to the Rolling Stone’s writer fancying himself a Hunter S. Thompson type have been done. None of this takes away from the film at large, though. In the end, Rolling Thunder is told best in one of its final shots. Allen Ginsburg gives a rushed and almost half baked inspirational monologue directly to the camera as we see an audience of onlookers in the reflection of the window behind him. That is what this film is. A film with so much to say, it doesn’t worry about every detail and even makes some up if it wants to. It does it because it is a film about feelings and about memories and it is, at all times, aware of the audience watching it. Much like Dylan’s titular tour, this film is performing for the crowd like a subtly aware, too cool for school 1970’s Commedia dell’arte and real or fake, it is always entertaining.