Once upon a time, there was a young filmmaker named Stefan van Dorp.
In the fall of 1975, having made a name for himself in the low-budget avant-garde scene, van Dorp decided to travel with the Rolling Thunder Revue, Bob Dylan’s first major tour in nearly a decade, documenting the endeavor while capturing the “dissolution of society” in pre-bicentennial America. As he says now 40 years later, he was searching for “the land of pet rocks and super Slurpees from 7/11. L’Amerique insolite.”1
Looking back today, Bob Dylan recalls thinking van Dorp’s project was “a splendid idea,” but he also recalls the young auteur becoming egomaniacal and paranoid over the course of that fall’s six-week tour of New England and Canada. For his part, van Dorp looks back on the Rolling Thunder journey as “a group of highly motivated and ambitious people [becoming] the most extreme versions of themselves…I know that’s what happened to me.”
Stefan van Dorp never managed to complete his experimental film about the Rolling Thunder Revue. But in the process, he captured some of the most electrifying concert scenes, and some of the strangest backstage footage, ever recorded. And if he’d ever existed, maybe he would have lived happily ever after.
Mr. Tambourine Man
In many ways, Conjuring the Rolling Thunder Revue2, Martin Scorsese’s 2019 Netflix documentary that looks back on 1975 in the life of one Bob Dylan, is not just a companion piece but a direct sequel to Scorsese’s 2005 PBS documentary, No Direction Home.
First airing as an installment in the American Masters series, No Direction Home surveys the first two and a half decades of Dylan’s life. In this span of time, he discovers rockabilly music as a young boy in rural Minnesota (then going by the name Robert Zimmerman), explodes onto the Greenwich Village folk scene with stirring reinterpretations of the great American songbook, masters the art of political anthems and so earns the uneasy but ubiquitous “voice of a generation” title, revolutionizes the public conception of songwriting by centralizing the composer’s authorial voice over the performer’s, alienates the folk scene that had championed him when he appears with an electric rock band, becomes dependent on amphetamines to keep up the breakneck pace of his stratospheric career, travels to Europe to be the subject of jeers from young audiences and vicious interrogation from old guard journalists, and finally returns to America only to suffer a catastrophic motorcycle crash, retiring from public life at just 25 years old.
One of the final scenes of this kaleidoscopic documentary finds Dylan hunched in a Stockholm dressing room in 1966. “I’m gonna get me a new Bob Dylan,” he mutters to his small entourage. “Get me a new Bob Dylan and use him.” He presses his long and slender fingers into his face, prodding open his drooping eyelids. “We’ll see how long he lasts.”
As we learn in the closing title cards of No Direction Home, Bob Dylan would seldom appear publicly across the next 10 years. That motorcycle crash—an event, like so many in his past, that’s still clouded by mystery over half a century later—signals the end of the life story of one Bob Dylan.
Conjuring the Rolling Thunder Revue is the life story of the Bob Dylan who mysteriously reemerged onto the Greenwich Village scene of 1975. Or, at least, it’s a story of that Bob Dylan.
It Ain’t Me Babe
It’s no secret why the 1975 leg of the Rolling Thunder Revue—a tour that saw Dylan headline a bill he shared with such contemporaries as Joan Baez, Roger McGuinn, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott—has exerted a gravitational force of fascination for over four decades, nor why a documentary is merited for a tour that lasted only a few weeks and crossed only a few states. The Rolling Thunder Revue was less a rock tour than a traveling art installation in which some of the best and brightest stars of the ‘60s and ‘70s (not just musicians, but poets and dramatists and assorted hangers-on) drifted in and out of small communities across northeast America, appearing in theaters for concerts as unusual as they were electrifying before blowing away again with the audience left stunned—or, as in the case of one young woman spotted in archival footage, experiencing emotional intensity so profound it can only be processed by paroxysmal sobs. Alluring and amusing as that story may be, though, the primary justification for the existence of Conjuring the Rolling Thunder Revue is the gift at its heart: Bob Dylan’s concert footage, finally remastered and restored in all of its blistering glory.
Much of this footage has long been available on YouTube and other purveyors of the free and low-res, but those clips have been cloudy and muted, seemingly bootlegged off bootlegs of bootlegs. Prior to the spring of 2019, you certainly had the option of watching a wild-eyed Bob Dylan stalk across a small stage, his face painted white, a wide-brimmed hat on his head and scarves around his neck, of watching him contort his scarecrow frame around the microphone as he furiously howled his ballads of stallions, chili peppers, and the valley below. But the footage you could watch was faded and blurry, the accompanying audio tinny and warped.
The restorations packaged within Scorsese’s film are a magic trick that looks more like a miracle. A team of technicians rescued canonical rock and roll performances, a gift not just for Dylan completists, but for any fan of cinematic rock. The camera was no incidental element of the Rolling Thunder experience, but rather Dylan’s primary audience; with these performances only one part of a vast and sprawling project meant to encompass the American spirit of ‘75, Dylan’s work here lives more on his face than in his voice, his expression shifting from grotesque snarl to bug-eyed buffoonery and back on the thinnest of dimes. When Dylan exited the stage a decade earlier, his persona was cold and reserved, letting the music speak for itself while he emoted as little as possible; in the footage presented as Stefan van Dorp’s, this one-time voice of a generation is so engaged it’s unnerving.
“Dylan looks like a caged animal stalking the stage,” writes Rolling Stone’s Larry Sloman in his 1978 tour diary, On the Road with Bob Dylan. “It’s not Dylan up there, it’s a fucking rock ’n’ roll Jolson.” In his own account of the tour published in 1977 as Rolling Thunder Logbook, playwright and caravanner Sam Shepard describes Dylan as “The Master Arsonist,” with a force of personality equal to his musical prowess—“just watch this transformation of energy which he carries.”
Among Dylan’s great talents has always been his ability to make his work appear casual, even offhand—all the better to deflect and deny any critical accusation of being a message-oriented artist. But such projections tend to belie a great deal of thought and care, a fact ably demonstrated by the Rolling Thunder Revue. While assuming an air of comfortable informality, the stage show was in fact co-conceived by veteran theater artist Jacques Levy, Dylan’s artistic soulmate of the era and the only significant writing partner of his career. In addition to co-composing much of the new material introduced with Rolling Thunder—“Hurricane,” “Isis,” and “Romance in Durango,” to name a few—Levy helped design the show as a proto-art-rock traveling installation
And so alongside their onstage roles as ebullient spiritual searchers, Dylan and his coterie followed a similar ethos of wondering and wandering as they wound their way across the northeast United States—travelogue interludes include the caravan’s pilgrimage to Plymouth Rock and Joan Baez visiting with an elderly luddite acquaintance of Arlo Guthrie’s, as well as an on-the-street encounter between an unseen Stefan van Dorp and a street vendor hawking bicentennial merchandise in the shadow of the Twin Towers.
“Rolling Thunder is searching for something,” Shepard ruminates in his Logbook. “Trying to locate ourselves.” Sloman quotes Allen Ginsberg (the tour’s resident poetic guru, occasional performer, and frequent baggage handler) characterizing the project as “the vision of the ‘60s becoming real,” an event that “gives other people permission to reveal their hearts,” while Sloman himself describes the tour as “the fucking musical event of the last 200 years,” in which “spiritual green berets…came into your town for your daughters and left with your minds.”
In Scorsese’s documentary, Dylan now argues his own perspective on what Rolling Thunder was about: nothing. “It’s just something that happened,” he declares, dismissing any theorizing on a deeper aesthetic mission.
If Bob Dylan has taught us anything across the past half-century, however, it’s that you can’t take what he says at face value. Nor can you blindly trust anything presented in Conjuring the Rolling Thunder Revue, a package shrouded in thick layers of deception and misdirection. But, as chimeric documentarian-in-chief Werner Herzog has said, there is a deeper layer of “ecstatic truth” running beneath the tedious level of fact, one that can only be accessed by the con man and the dreamer.
Sam Shepard was brought onboard Rolling Thunder just before the tour was set to commence, and tasked with finding a shape for the film project that was meant to intertwine with the journey. Stefan van Dorp’s unconventional documentary was already proving dangerously amorphous, and Shepard—whom Dylan describes as having “a special knowledge of the underworld”—seemed like just the disciplined artist to give the project shape and purpose.
Shepard, comfortably in the gray-haired elder statesman phase of his career, appears in Conjuring the Rolling Thunder Revue to describe his bafflement at this nebulous cinematic vision. He does not, however, mention Stefan van Dorp. And this omission is most likely due to the fact that when Shepard’s interview was shot prior to his death in the summer of 2017, Stefan van Dorp had not yet been conceived.
Shepard’s is one of several interviews in Conjuring the Rolling Thunder Revue—alongside such tour members as Ronnie Hawkins and Ronee Blakley—that take a tone of typical historiography, one that seems somehow out of step with van Dorp’s presence. It would stand to reason, then, that these traditional interviews were likely shot for the first iteration of Scorsese’s film. In a promotional clip released by Netflix, the director discusses his editors’ first rough cut of a Rolling Thunder Revue documentary, one apparently much closer to the by-the-books No Direction Home. “It’s conventional,” he recalls thinking. “What do I care where they went?” And then he was seized by a flash of inspiration: the film should look to the spirit of Rolling Thunder more than its story. “Let’s embrace the mythology,” he told his collaborators. “[Rolling Thunder is] supposed to explore something that is timeless about us as human beings.”
It was from this spirit of play that Stefan van Dorp was born. The man presented on-screen as the auteur of the archival footage—both the concert scenes and the travelogue material—is in fact a wholly fictional character given life by performance artist Martin von Haselberg. With his decades of experience as an improvisatory provocateur, von Haselberg embodies the van Dorp persona with eerie authenticity, though—as with so many optical illusions—once the viewer is made aware of the falsehood, the tells become evident. Van Dorp is a charming louche, but one perhaps just a bit too comfortable on camera, his bon mots sliding out just a bit too easily and with just a bit too much eloquence. “Please,” he sneers, picking up just a bit too quickly on his cue when asked whether Sloman’s journalistic presence on the tour complicated his own work. “Does the cockroach really cause problems for the house?” It’s a bizarre and unfamiliar witticism, but one the preternaturally camera-ready van Dorp seems to have loaded in the quiver, set to fly at a moment’s notice.
Van Dorp is one of several overt fictionalizations woven into Conjuring the Rolling Thunder Revue. The arrogant auteur is relatively easy to categorize as the one character created solely for the film; slipperier, perhaps, is the participation of Sharon Stone and Paramount CEO Jim Gianopulos, both of whom appear prominently throughout to deliver stories of their own intersections with Rolling Thunder, all of them pure—and easily debunked—fiction. While Stone’s false recollections could plausibly intersect with a casual knowledge of her life story, the narrative spun by Gianopulos runs wholly counter to his own history; the film would have us believe not only that career movie exec Gianopulos once worked in the music industry, but that the Rolling Thunder tour was his idea, a get-rich-quick scheme meant to cash in on the emerging concept of arena rock shows.
Here the narrative contortions of Conjuring the Rolling Thunder Revue begin to beg more metatextual questions than they answer. The tour, by all accounts, was anything but a craven cash grab—“[It’s] what I have to do,” Dylan tells Sloman in On the Road With Bob Dylan, incredulous at the notion that there could be any other reason behind the tour. “It’s in my blood.” Yet Scorsese and Dylan together rewrite history to remove, or at least obscure, this genuine artistic egalitarianism. Given the chance to revise one of Dylan’s final moments of vitality before a decades-long career trough, the pair chose to diminish his status, a choice that seems perverse where so many mythologized true stories skew towards magnifying the subject’s achievements.
For all this misdirection—or, from a less charitable perspective, outright lying—there is no particular effort taken to conceal the deception; with von Haselberg listed in the end credits as “The Filmmaker,” this façade can’t be intended to sustain itself past the moment the lights come up. And if there’s any doubt that Scorsese’s gleeful abuse of realism is meant to be overt, it must be put to rest by the appearance of Rep. Jack Tanner, a figure recognizable not for any true governing experience but for the man embodying him: veteran character actor Michael Murphy, whose face is quietly ubiquitous after more than 100 screen credits across nearly 50 years of appearances in projects from White House Down to Magnolia to Brewster McCloud.
It’s not just the familiarity of the performer that makes Tanner stand out—more significantly, he’s a creation of late director Robert Altman and Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau. The pair invented the character for their HBO miniseriesTanner ’88, which followed the misadventures of Tanner’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, a project they eventually followed with Tanner on Tanner, detailing Tanner’s trip to the 2004 DNC convention. While these works incorporated elements of reality into their fiction, pulling history into their fictional vortex, Conjuring the Rolling Thunder Revue pulls the opposite trick, summoning Tanner across his ever-porous barrier with reality and creating a shared universe between Altman’s satiric historicizing and Scorsese’s own.
After the Lincoln Center premiere of Conjuring the Rolling Thunder Revue in June 2019, Owen Gleiberman spoke with various audience members who had made it through the film unaware of the fictionalized elements. “Most of the people I spoke to,” Gleiberman later wrote for Variety, “were…kind of bummed. Over and over, they said that they felt duped, suckered, even a little betrayed.” But betrayal of his audience couldn’t possibly have been Scorsese’s intent when the fictions are hidden in such plain sight that to even call them hidden seems an overstatement.
And thus arose the central question taken up by critics in the wake of the film’s release: what the hell was the point?
I Shall Be Released
In the weeks following the Netflix premiere of Conjuring the Rolling Thunder Revue, there was much analysis—and no small amount of hand-wringing—over Scorsese’s chosen effects. “Isn’t fake news our greatest enemy these days?” Larry Fitzmaurice wrote for Vulture, and that notoriously toxic term appears frequently across critical responses to the film. “Why traffic in—for want of a better term—‘fake news,’” Rob Salkowitz asked in Forbes, “at this fraught moment in our history when the difficulty of telling fact from fiction is no laughing matter?” Gleiberman is happy to take it a step further in his Variety piece, quoting a friend who called the film “more Trumpian than Dylanesque.”
Among those willing to extend Scorsese a bit more benefit of the doubt, the common presumption has been that the film’s ethos is an extension of Dylan’s longstanding history of misdirection and deceit in his personal mythologization. We are speaking, of course, of the man whose canonical life story is woven from so many contradictory threads that his 2007 biopic, I’m Not There, had to be fractured and abstracted just to convey the cubist prism through which his biography has long been filtered. It takes no stretch of the imagination to align the project with Dylan’s indifferent approach to truth. But with Scorsese—who went from perpetual Oscar loser to anointed Best Director in the years between his Dylan projects—at the controls, it’s hard to believe the storytelling choice could be quite so simple.
The use of “cubist” to describe Dylan’s projected self-image is no casual association. During his post-crash sojourn, much of which he spent in upstate New York raising a family, Dylan took up painting as a hobby, and eventually apprenticed with Norman Raeben, whose education on the cubist school—the principle that literal representation is less meaningful than a rendering that defies natural laws of space and time—influenced not just Dylan’s dabbling with visual art but his approach to songwriting as well. In the liner notes to the 1985 box set Biograph, Dylan discusses “trying to make [my songwriting] like a painting where you can see the different parts but then you can also see the whole of it.”
There are several moments throughout Conjuring the Rolling Thunder Revue in which Dylan seems to tip his hand and allow a glimpse at the meaning behind the misdirection. And in one of the most notable, the septuagenarian rocker purrs, “Life isn’t about finding yourself…it’s about creating yourself.” The Rolling Thunder Revue was nothing if not an act of regeneration; the man who wished a decade earlier to “get me a new Dylan, and use him” did just that, inhabiting a defiantly false persona complete with pancake makeup and the occasional translucent mask. After a decade’s absence from the tumultuous tides of pop culture (“I missed out on Woodstock,” he writes in his 2004 memoir Chronicles: Volume One with a textual shrug. “Just wasn’t there”) his reentry wouldn’t have been viable had he attempted to hop directly back onto the track he’d ridden in the ‘60s. Instead, he needed to find a new track—or, perhaps preferably, no familiar track at all.
And so his chosen trajectory upon returning to the public stage was to forcibly control the narrative. If he subverted every typical mode of projecting artistic sincerity, then no journalist could hold him to account for preaching any sort of message. The old Bob Dylan had written protest songs because they were fashionable and sold well, and a hero-starved culture had punished him with their expectations and skepticism. Now, it was time to create another Bob Dylan, one who projected nothing but transparent falseness. And to tell the story of this art-directed reemergence, no style could be more natural than one imbued with that spirit of disregard for pedestrian concerns like the truth. Conventional verisimilitude would diminish the entire operation to the point that you wouldn’t be telling the right story at all.
Even beyond this spiritual embodiment of Rolling Thunder, however, the cubist portrait painted by Dylan and Scorsese has yet one more imperative. Because Stefan van Dorp may not have conceived of this hallucinatory avant-garde film. But someone else certainly did.
Contrary to what Conjuring the Rolling Thunder Revue would have you believe, the film shot alongside the tour was, in fact, completed. Renaldo & Clara, Bob Dylan’s debut as a feature filmmaker, was eventually edited into a rambling and mumbling whole that runs nearly four mostly-incoherent hours. Released in a few theaters in 1978, the film was pulled from circulation after only a week due to complete audience rejection; it has not been commercially available in any form since.
Seemingly inspired by loose and experimental French New Wave works, as well as his experiences with D. A. Pennebaker on the landmark 1967 documentary Dont Look Back, Dylan crafted—following, by all accounts, an intricate personal editing code inspired by musical composition—a protracted collage of stilted semi-improvised encounters between members of the tour (sometimes playing themselves, sometimes fictional characters, and often some enigmatic combination) all braided with that outrageously arresting concert footage. In No Direction Home, Dylan speaks nostalgically of working with Pennebaker, and the run-and-gun approach of Direct Cinema documentarians: “They didn’t light places,” Dylan muses, “they didn’t have to stop filming. If you ran, they ran.” It seems more than likely that this thrilling experience and the equally thrilling film that resulted were at the fore of Dylan’s mind as he conceived his project. But while this approach may be ideal for fly-on-the-wall documentary, it’s a poor fit for narrative film, no matter how abstract the vision.
Dylan’s vague plans were only further complicated by the grueling schedule of a rock tour; Shepard writes in his Logbook of realizing early on that the scarce and brief shooting windows would make traditional scripted scenes unfeasible, leaving the performers—few of whom had any experience as actors—to riff on vague scenarios Shepard was forced to generate in the heat of the moment. Thus, the narrative of Renaldo & Clara is in constant flux, any hints at a potential running story undermined by inaudible dialogue and inscrutable editing.
It’s hard to imagine that even the craftiest editor could wrestle Renaldo & Clara into shape, so it was likely always destined for obscurity, and no proper restoration has ever been attempted for this now half-century-old footage. But to remaster and distribute only the concert scenes would rob those performances of their full power by removing the supporting structure in all its ramshackle cubist ambition. To preserve the infectiously eerie spirit channeled by the stage show, the connecting material should be just as uncategorizable as Bob Dylan’s great filmmaking folly.
This spirit of spritely obfuscation, of course, gave rise to Stefan van Dorp, but even beyond his use in embodying the project’s mood, van Dorp serves a convenient function. With large swaths of Renaldo & Clara repurposed for Conjuring the Rolling Thunder Revue, some explanation was necessary as to why that footage seems so addled and contrived. Rather than outing himself as having strayed beyond his artistic purview, Dylan allows van Dorp to absorb the weight of his cockeyed directorial choices. And rather than failed narrative scenes, the documentary’s conceit reframes the footage as highly stylized but nevertheless authentic.
Thus scenes that seem agonizingly slack when presented as fiction become vibrant when viewed as fact; in one standout moment from Renaldo & Clara, Joan Baez provokes Dylan on his poor treatment of her a decade prior. In his Logbook, Shepard writes of his confusion over whether the conversation is fabricated or genuine—if the former, it’s “the worst melodrama on earth,” while if the latter, it’s “the best head-to-head confessional ever put on film.” By recasting the moment not as Dylan’s desperate attempt to gin up watchable drama but rather Stefan van Dorp’s attempt at Direct Cinema, the scene becomes unambiguously a bitterly wistful encounter between one of the most iconic musical duos of the ‘60s, all of it presented for an audience to consume with uncomplicated interest, tedious facts be damned.
The Renaldo & Clara salvage job represented by Conjuring the Rolling Thunder Revue allows for one more revision, covering a necessary but significant omission: Scorsese’s film makes no mention of Dylan’s marriage. By 1975, after a decade and four children, Dylan and his wife Sara had reached a torrid and desperate crossroads, making one last bid to save a marriage that was already beyond hope. Given that she was traveling with her husband, Sara is a constant figure in his mutagenic epic, even portraying half of the eponymous duo; it’s this inadvertent and abstracted portrait of a relationship struggling to its close that makes Renaldo & Clara most worthy as a cultural document.
But for as fascinating as this element may be, to repurpose and relitigate the former Mrs. Dylan’s intersection with the Rolling Thunder Revue would run counter to her long-standing desire to remove herself as much as possible from discussions of her ex-husband’s life. And so van Dorp and his fictionalized cohort serve not only as an energizing force elevating Conjuring the Rolling Thunder Revue above traditional rock docs, they operate as deft sleight of hand. To cut around Sara would leave the film even more incoherent than it already is. Scorsese and Dylan found a way to rehabilitate Renaldo & Clara in perhaps the only viable form: a slick and conventionally appealing revision of that spirit Allen Ginsberg likens in archival footage to a “con man carnie medicine show of old.”
That sort of ambition is too grand to last forever. By all accounts, after shooting wrapped on Renaldo & Clara at the close of the tour’s 1975 leg, some light went out in Dylan’s spirit. The tour’s second leg was a notorious disappointment, with an increasingly bitter and withdrawn Dylan putting forth shows that lacked the wit and mischief of the previous winter. The spiritual green berets who’d been his partners in crime found themselves either forcibly alienated or unceremoniously removed from the bill, and with Sara having returned home following their failed bid at reconciliation, Dylan increasingly sequestered himself with a rotating parade of girlfriends.
“It was meant to be done once,” bassist Rob Stoner would later say of the Rolling Thunder Revue’s failed extension. But this second act of Bob Dylan’s second act is elided in Scorsese’s film. It’s a better story without this messy and painful truth—and as Mark Twain is said to have said, facts should never be allowed to get in the way of a good story.
This Land is Your Land
For as thrilling as Dylan’s renditions of his new material may be, the true revelation of Conjuring the Rolling Thunder Revue is the reinvention of his troubadour material, those humble folk tunes that first earned him a permanent seat at the table. As part of his aggressive reinvention campaign, Dylan rips through these old songs like a man on fire, dismantling a piece like “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and reshaping it into a howl—maybe of rage, maybe confusion, maybe just the overflowing power of a talent kept at bay for a decade finally given free rein3.
The new interpretation serves as a measuring stick for how far American culture had come in the 13 years since this epochal protest anthem, and all the agonizing complexity that had been introduced into the cultural equation—not to mention a thumb in the eye of the crowds who a decade earlier would have considered the reinterpretation heresy of the highest order.
In No Direction Home, Greenwich Village mainstay Dave van Ronk suggests that Dylan possesses a preternatural ability to tap into the Jungian collective unconscious of America—in the early 1960s, that channeling of the national spirit resulted in melodic provocations, measured works perfect for crying out in ecstatic unison. Now, opening himself once more to the American psychic stream, he became the conduit for a national fever dream. In his book, Sloman, defines Dylan’s great calling as “[telling] the tribe the news of the hour,” and in the wake of Watergate and the fall of Saigon, the hour’s news was bleak.
Elsewhere in No Direction Home, Bob Neuwirth—folk scene fixture and erstwhile Rolling Thunder member—highlights Dylan’s uncanny ability to force popular culture into alignment with his whims; the experimental urge to meld folk with electric rock was so unimaginable it was practically taboo, but he executed it with such inarguable skill that the rest of the world had no choice but to catch up. The Rolling Thunder Revue was likely never destined for this seismic cultural impact—by the mid-‘70s, pop culture was already showing signs of the fragmentation that would lead to our much-discussed twilight of the monoculture—but in his 1975 odyssey, Dylan was nevertheless presaging something, be it the future of flamboyantly false rock shows or an eventual mass skepticism towards purported objective truth in a world of alternative facts. America may not have caught up with him right away, but like a cultural magnetic north, Bob Dylan would eventually guide us towards his ideal, no matter how desperate and embittered that ideal may have seemed when manifested by an artist jettisoning every vestige of his past.
In the closing stretch of Conjuring the Rolling Thunder Revue, Bob Dylan looks back across the gulf of nearly four-and-a-half decades and gives his final rambling ruling on the Rolling Thunder Revue: “It wasn’t a success,” he ultimately sighs. “But it was a sense of adventure.” Asked what remains of the tour today, though, he has a definitive answer: “Not one single thing. Ashes.” If anything in this most audacious example of cinematic creative nonfiction can be taken as fact, it’s this. By the end of the tour, Bob Dylan’s second act had gone up in flames. A new Bob Dylan would soon be born.
Translating literally as “the unusual America,” the term was also the title of a 1960 documentary by François Reichenbach released in English as America as Seen by a Frenchman.
While many sources, including IMDb and the Netflix homepage, list the film’s title as Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story, this is the title per the onscreen card; this essay will omit the cheeky hyphen animated into that card transforming “Revue” into “Re-vue” at the last moment.
It’s also, more than likely, cocaine abuse in action. The drug was plentiful on the tour, but to ascribe too much of the performances’ power to illicit substances would seem a disservice to the last true stand of what Ginsberg refers to in archival footage as the inspired Dylan.