Monday, March 30, 2020

Rolling Thunder Revue: Showmanship

Joan Baez  and Bob Dylan in Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese, now streaming on Netflix.

The Rolling Thunder Revue traveled around the U.S. and Canada in 1975 and 1976 in two long arcs with a brief respite in between. I saw it at the Montreal Forum when I was in my mid-twenties, and it was overwhelming – the musicality and the musical variety, the charisma of the performers, led by Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, the eccentric but undeniable communal spirit. It was different from the other great rock concerts I sat through around the same time (the best were Dylan’s Before the Flood tour with The Band and Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run tour). It was a nutty collage with a rotating cast; performers would join the principals onstage when the show opened in their neck of the woods and then sometimes they’d extend their stay and travel around with it for a while. (That’s what happened when Joni Mitchell appeared in the concert during the Connecticut piece.)

But in 1978 Dylan released a four-hour film called Renaldo & Clara that mixed up pieces of the show with stupefying, “existential” improvisations featuring him and some of the other performers and others in his entourage (like his wife Sara). Renaldo & Clara was insufferable – incompetent and narcissistic – and because of the way the music and the other stuff were tossed together, like a bulky, indigestible salad, you couldn’t get a sense of the rhythm or the visceral excitement of the Rolling Thunder Revue, or – and this was the ultimate irony – of how mesmerizing Dylan was when you saw him live. His renditions of his songs were marred by his worshipful treatment of himself in the offstage scenes and he seemed distant in a way that messed with my memory of him in the concert. I kept focusing on his clown-white make-up, which I barely recalled from seeing the concert just three years earlier. I began to wonder if I’d deluded myself into thinking the Rolling Thunder Revue and particularly Dylan’s performance in it were great. Yet when I dug into my strongest memories of it later, of the top of the second half, an extended acoustic set by Dylan and Baez, what I mostly recalled – besides how beautiful they sounded together – was the warmth and companionability of their duets. And I’d loved Dylan with The Band on the Before the Flood tour. Nobody else in the film came across with the electric presence I’d remembered either except for Ronee Blakley, the star of Robert Altman’s Nashville: when she sang “Need a New Sun Rising,” for three or four minutes the pretentious, empty film broke apart and there seemed to be a beating heart up on the screen.

I think Martin Scorsese’s Rolling Thunder Revue is wonderful, and what I’m mostly grateful to Scorsese for is that it restores the feeling of seeing it nearly half a century ago. Musically and dramatically, as a vocalist and a showman supreme, Dylan is staggering. His rendition of “Isis” from the album Desire, in his trademark cowboy hat with artificial flowers decorating the band and a long scarf that drips almost all the way down the front of his body, emphasizes the crazy, “The Cremation of Sam McGee”-like narrative quality of the lyric, wherein a young man goes on an Arctic adventure with a seductive stranger who turns out to be a madman but manages to survive it – and him – and return, wiser about his priorities, to the woman he should have stayed with all along. Dylan presents it so vividly that we feel we’re watching it unspool in front of us like a movie. He marches through it with urgency, circling every nuance, his eyes popping as if he were just as surprised by the twists as we are. His famous ironic tone is present, but so are astonishment, terror, conviction. On “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” a comic reflection on fame and the artistic process, his face is fierce but then he starts to grin, as if he were sending up his own anger and kidding us for taking it seriously. He performs “The Death of Hattie Carroll,” from his early folk-protest phase, with indelible ferocity; it’s a good song but far from a great one (though Baez, with her weakness for pedantry, tells him it’s the best thing he’s ever written), but if you’d never heard it before this version, you could be forgiven for thinking it is great. There are rousing, razor-sharp performances of “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” (in a pulsating rock ‘n’ roll arrangement that throws its folk origins right out the window), “One More Cup of Coffee,” “A Simple Twist of Fate,” and even that terrible song “Hurricane,” his ballad of the framed black boxer Rubin Carter, which contains, in my opinion, the worst rhyme he’s ever penned: “They’re gonna put his ass in stir / They’re gonna pin this triple mur- / Der on him / He ain’t no Gentleman Jim.” And his duet with Baez on “Blowin’ in the Wind,” which soars from behind the curtain at the end of intermission before the curtain flies up and we see the singers, is movingly sweet and honors the great days of their musical collaboration, while they were still a couple offstage as well as on. You can believe her when she tells the camera, in a modern-day interview, that you could forgive Dylan everything (his diva shenanigans) when you heard him sing; you can believe him when he claims that there was nothing the two of them couldn’t sing together, that they could sing together in their sleep, that sometimes he still hears her voice in his dreams.

Scorsese made the greatest of all rockumentaries, The Last Waltz, about The Band’s farewell concert, at San Francisco’s Winterland, in 1978. Rolling Thunder Revue might be the second best (leading contender: Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense, starring Talking Heads, from 1984) – and it won back the affection I’d lost for the director after sitting through his paralyzing The Irishman, which is almost as long as Renaldo & Clara. But it’s not remotely like other entries in this genre. If Renaldo & Clara was infuriatingly self-serious, Rolling Thunder Revue is irresistibly playful. Its subtitle is A Bob Dylan Story, and it’s not only a compendium of examples of brilliant showmanship but also about showmanship. It begins with silent-movie footage of a magician making a woman vanish and reappear, and the first version of the title we get, immediately after, calls it Conjuring the Rolling Thunder Revue. Scorsese takes his cue from the clown white on Dylan’s face – which, unlike in Renaldo & Clara, doesn’t operate to distance us from him and, in many segments, has been almost wiped away by the sweat of a hard-toiling troubadour – and from Baez’s imitation of him (she appears dressed up as him in one concert clip) and the chorus of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” where Roger McGuinn of The Byrds, his Georgian-era coiffe combed out in a triangle, mimics Dylan so they look like funhouse mirror images of each other. A tongue-in-cheek cast list in the end credits identifies the performers and the members of the concert entourage who show up in offstage footage from the tour and the interviewees emblematically: Baez is The Balladeer, Patti Smith is The Punk Poet, Roger McGuinn is The Minstrel, Allen Ginsberg is The Oracle of Delphi and so on. And some of them are put-ons – actors playing invented characters or playing themselves but telling invented stories about their interaction with the tour. (I won’t spoil the fun for those who haven’t seen the picture by revealing them.) Sometimes you think what you’re watching can’t be real – Larry “Ratso” Sloman, the Rolling Stone reporter who covered it, and Hurricane Carter, with his revival-preacher show-biz presence (and his bizarre resemblance to Ving Rhames), come across as made-up but they’re not. Rolling Thunder Revue is about the way in which rock ‘n’ roll performers and even poets like Ginsberg are right in line with magicians and medicine-show snake-oil salesmen, though it conveys that idea without cynicism; it’s a celebration, and no one who watches Dylan and Baez, or Joni Mitchell performing her newly written “Coyote” backstage while Dylan and McGuinn improvise guitar accompaniment, could deny we’re watching authentic artists. This must be the first bona fide sleight-of-hand rockumentary movie.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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