1970s Dylan at his weirdest and finest
Who is Bob Dylan? Is he a folk singer wrapped in a rocker wrapped in a riddle? Or is he just a very ambitious (and very talented) musician who changed American music forever? One way of getting at the man himself is through film, and the old yet new Rolling Thunder Revue gives just one slice of this most mercurial of geniuses.
In Don’t Look Back, we get a cooler-than-cool Dylan at the height of his ascendance through the lens of D.A. Pennebaker. In 2005’s No Direction Home, we see a very open Dylan sharing from his vast past with Martin Scorsese at the helm. Marty’s back for this one, taking a weird little tour and making a weird little film out of the footage.
People don’t think much about the Bicentennial these days, but in 1975 it loomed large, and as part of this exploration of what America had become in 200 years, Bob Dylan decided to put on a tour with a bunch of his friends for the purpose of… well, purposelessness. It’s this amorphous nature of the project that comes through both in contemporary interviews with the participants as well as footage from way back when.
There are participants you’d expect like Joan Baez, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and Roger McGuinn, but there are some outliers as well. Twenty years on from “Howl,” poet Allen Ginsberg joins the crew, providing both sage wisdom as well as some silly dancing. Famed playwright Sam Shepard tags along as well.
For this Criterion release, the original film had to be cleaned up in a massive way. Scorsese talks about the choice to restore it versus leaving it in a weathered state, but he wanted the audience to be right there and not feel the distance scratches and fading can engender. The result is some truly great looking concert spots as good as anything we have of 1970s Dylan. An extra on the disc shows some amazing side by sides.
It might go unnoticed, but all is not as it seems in this documentary. Several of the interviewees are actors and their participation in the tour was imaginary to say the least. I’ll leave it up to the viewer to figure out which ones, but there is “narrative mischief” afoot, with Criterion describing the end result as “a slippery, chimerical investigation into memory, time, truth, and illusion.” Just don’t think twice, and it will be all right.
The tour takes place mainly in New England with a variety of venues from large auditoriums to a club full of middle-aged women. Along with Ginsberg, Dylan visits the cemetery where Jack Kerouac is buried, the most Beat thing one could do.
What is most real is the version of Bob Dylan we get here. He’s playful, coy, and as engaging a performer as he’s ever been. The Blood on the Tracks-era Dylan is clearly past the urgency and churn of his iconic six-album run in the 1960s, but he’s sure of himself and confident in a really endearing way. For fans of the man, this is a must watch.
DIRECTOR-APPROVED SPECIAL EDITION FEATURES
- New 4K digital transfer, approved by director Martin Scorsese, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray
- New interviews with Scorsese, editor David Tedeschi, and writer Larry “Ratso” Sloman
- Restored footage of never-before-seen Rolling Thunder Revue performances of “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here with You” and “Romance in Durango,” and of a never-before-seen cut of “Tangled Up in Blue”
- English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
- PLUS: An essay by novelist Dana Spiotta and writing from the Rolling Thunder Revue tour by author Sam Shepard and poets Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman
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