There’s a chapter in Harper Lee’s seminal work To Kill a Mockingbird where innocent narrator Scout loses one more aspect of that innocence and takes another vital step into adulthood when she realizes that hired help Calpurnia leads two lives: the strict, maternal figure in Scout and brother Jem’s house and another as a member of her African-American community. This all comes to Scout when she joins Cal in church and witnesses her in conversation.
Bob Dylan’s no stranger to this idea, except that he took it much further: rather than having two identities for two different aspects of life, why not have multitudes? Why not change with every album, every tour, every year, every day?
Released on June 12 via Netflix, part of what Martin Scorsese’s new “documentary” Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story (note the word “story” in the title) does is not so much take apart that notion of different selves as continue it, to laugh about it years after so much has changed. And of course, Dylan is right there for it all.
“That’s all clumsy bullshit,” Dylan attempts in describing his 1975 tour dubbed the Rolling Thunder Revue. While the performances were stellar, the same ungainly characterization could be applied about the tour and its predecessor, too. (The bulk of the story here focuses on the 1975 initial run, not return in 1976). Artists upon artists were added to the bill as the show rolled into small town venues throughout the States, including Joan Baez, Roger McGuinn, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Joni Mitchell, and a host of recognizable musicians in the backing band. Eventually some had to be bumped completely off the stage, e.g. the late Allen Ginsberg, to make room for more.
1975 was a time of great conflict even if the Vietnam War was coming to an end. It was the cusp of the bicentennial of the United States — though as noted in the movie, few in the rural areas of the country would care — and the country was trying to define itself once again. Dylan proves to be far better at it all. There’s the clear lesson here that clinging to the past, celebrating, reveling in nostalgia and in those things that made us who we are now is not only useless but silly. “It’s about nothing,” modern-era Dylan quips, “It happened so long ago, I wasn’t even born!”
The movie revolves around identity, controlling identity, and the narrative that goes with that control even as we are all in the midst of changing. It levels the idea that if you don’t take the reigns, someone else will. And that someone may not have your best interests in mind.
None of this is new to any Dylan fan and I’ll leave it to you to suss out what’s true and what’s not; however, great moments live throughout: the man isn’t at his most revealing (see Scorese’s previous Dylan documentary, No Direction Home for that) nor is he at his most thoughtful (cue the 2004 60 Minutes interview with Ed Bradley). But there are nice conversations with Bob Dylan and the rest of the band as the movie shifts from Dylan to the caravan. (It’s nice, too, that Ramblin’ Jack Elliott gets his due here as he was barely a footnote in Scorsese’s previous Dylan documentary.)
Besides, the performances are what speak for Dylan and his troupe the best. In the trusted hands of a master filmmaker like Scorsese, you can bet there are plenty; these full songs aren’t just sprinkled but dominate the film. Your hair will stand on end.
Rolling Thunder Revue opens and closes with a disappearing act, which is Dylan at his core, disappearing right before our eyes and in the very community where he resides. No matter what it was that we think defined us yesterday, last year, or a decade ago, it would be flighty and immature of us to think that we have zero say in the matter. None of it does any good unless we realize that we are in control of those selves, we come to terms with those selves. Bob Dylan may say as much.
Likely, he won’t.
The movie is now streaming on Netflix.