Rolling Thunder Revue – A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese (2019)

Posted by Green on September 17, 2020as

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“Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story” is one of the most frustrating Martin Scorsese films as well as one of the most out-of-character. Decades in the making, in a way, this is an engaging but disorganized and long-winded (two hours, twenty minutes) account of the time in 1975 that Bob Dylan, just a few years on from his motorcycle accident, convened a vagabond caravan of musicians, poets, reporters, photographers, money men, and hangers-on to tour the United States in the lead-up to the country’s Bicentennial celebration. The tour was a bust, financially and in terms of cultural impact—or at least that’s how Dylan, 78 at the time of this film’s streaming premiere, remembers it, while cautioning Scorsese and the viewer that he barely remembers anything at all. Nevertheless, the Rolling Thunder Revue rejuvenated Dylan as a musician, in the manner of Elvis Presley’s 1968 “comeback” special. And it generated enormous amounts of tour footage, some of which is reproduced here, within a highly conceptual framework, by Scorsese.

The issue of authorship is nearly as central to this movie as the story of Dylan roaming the United States, driving his own tour bus and performing in small- and medium-sized halls, accompanied by the likes of Joan Baez, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Patti Smith, Roger McGuinn, Scarlet Rivera, Joni Mitchell, Ronnie Hawkins, and (in one of his final filmed appearances) Sam Shepard. Scorsese, who over the course of his long career has essentially stamped certain American rock acts, including Dylan, The Rolling Stones, and The Band with “Property of Martin Scorsese,” is the credited director, naturally. And as edited by Damian Rodriguez and David Tedeschi, the film bears many Scorsesean hallmarks, including surprising transitions from one idea to the next, and sequences that have been cross-cut in order to provoke questions and create sensations rather than serve up fixed meanings or answers.

But once you look at what the thing actually is, what it’s made of, and how the pieces have been arranged, things get curiouser and curiouser. The film is woven around footage shot during the tour by real-life Chicago cameraman Howard Alk (1930-1982), who was hired by Dylan to make a project that somehow never got turned into an actual feature film. The footage has been re-contextualized by Scorsese and presented as the work of European filmmaker Stefan Van Dorp, a nonexistent person played by Argentinean performance artist Martin von Haselberg (husband of Bette Midler, briefly glimpsed in 1975 footage). In interviews, Van Dorp talks in the cliched “high culture” cadences of a mid-20th century moneyed WASP, and speaks on camera of his subjects and collaborators (excluding Dylan and a few others) in an exasperated, withering manner.

Other fictional characters enter the narrative as well, including Paramount Pictures CEO James Gianopulos as the tour promoter; actor Michael Murphy as nonexistent Congressman Jack Tanner (whom he played in two projects for the late Robert Altman); and Sharon Stone, costar of Scorsese’s “Casino,” as herself, telling the story of how she attended one of the Rolling Thunder Revue concerts as a 17-year-old in the company of her mother, introduced Dylan to a then-new rock act known as KISS, and allegedly inspired him to don Kabuki-styled face-paint onstage and invite Stone to join his caravan.

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