Available on Netflix
Dylan occupies an almost mythical place in American cultural history. When the young mid-Western Jewish boy arrived in Greenwich Village in the early 1960s, he was, to use his own phrase, “a complete unknown”. But just a few years later, he was being heralded as the “voice of his generation”; his songs had become the anthems of the burgeoning civil rights movement in America and of a much broader counter-cultural movement. This extraordinary rise was the subject of Martin Scorsese’s acclaimed 2005 documentary No Direction Home.
Now, Scorsese has returned to the subject with a straight to Netflix documentary that follows Dylan’s 1975 tour, The Rolling Thunder Revue. The tour has become legendary, featuring iconic performances not just from Dylan, but from those he brought along for the ride; Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Patti Smith amongst others. The events covered take place nearly a decade after Dylan’s epoch-defining tours of the mid 1960s. In that time, the movements which had taken Dylan’s songs of anger and protest to their hearts, had become disillusioned.
The hope that the times really were a-changing had been dashed on the rocks of Vietnam and the cold reality of persistent prejudice. The Rolling Thunder Revue was not Dylan’s attempt to right these wrongs and to rekindle those movements. In fact, Dylan had never been comfortable as the voice of these movements and had actively resisted attempts by the media to characterise him as such. When asked whether he saw himself as the voice of a generation he had famously responded that he “more of a song and dance man”. The true nature of the Rolling Thunder Revue is much harder to pin down. This is what makes Scorsese’s documentary so intriguing.
What makes Scorsese uniquely well qualified to tell the story is the inside track he has on Dylan. Just as in No Direction Home, the archive footage is interspersed with gnomic comments from the man himself. Perhaps the most telling of these comes early in the piece when Dylan expostulates: “Life isn’t about finding yourself or finding anything. It’s about creating yourself.” Perhaps it should come as no surprise that Dylan is so keenly aware of the need to define yourself and your place in the world. After all, if he didn’t do it, someone else was all too happy to do it for him. In a later Dylan masterpiece, Jokerman, there is a line that eloquently captures the process:
off one more layer of skin,
Keeping one step ahead of the persecutor within.
Just as his fans or his detractors feel that they have a hold on who he is, Dylan has slipped through their fingers leaving only misconceptions behind.
Scorsese is well aware that he is complicit in Dylan’s act of self-creation. He interleaves the film with scenes of conjuring and magic. Indeed, the film opens with a scene taken from a George Méliès classic in which a conjuror causes his assistant to disappear in a puff of smoke. Perhaps a better analogy for Scorsese’s trick would have been the hall of mirrors. For it is always the image of Dylan that we are presented with – an image distorted through the lens of the filmmaker, distorted by the strange whiteface that Dylan adopted for his performances, and distorted by the strange mix of talking heads reminiscing about the tour.
By the end of the film, you may be left with more questions than answers. But perhaps that is the point. There is no easy narrative and that is because neither Dylan nor Scorsese want there to be one. What is clear, however, is that the tour was a significant moment in Dylan’s career of self-creation. The year before Dylan had embarked on his first tour in 8 years. That tour was much more financially successful than the Rolling Thunder Revue but it was largely made up of nostalgic revivals of Dylan’s sixties hits. Perhaps it was on this tour that Dylan realised the need to shed off the old skin and find something new. Many artists may have that feeling, trudging through the old material but only very few can recreate themselves with such compelling power, such vitality.