Scorsese and Dylan show old men can teach new tricks
Film director and musical legend pair up after 14 years for a new take on the 20th century’s most elusive and mythological pop-culture figure
It’s a mouthful of a title but if, as a Dylan acolyte, that’s not going to get you to click on Netflix’s latest offering, nothing will.
After the success of the conventionally biographical but enviably precious archive-filled illuminations of Martin Scorsese’s seminal 2005 documentary No Direction Home, the director and his subject pair up again for what is a distinctly different but perhaps even more important film about the 20th century’s most elusive and mythological mystical living pop-culture figure.
Fourteen years after No Direction Home with a Pulitzer and a Nobel Prize for Literature on his mantelpiece, Bob Dylan, the self-made guitar-playing Jewish boy from the Midwest whose career was built on a singular mix of self-invention and deep absorption in the mythology and songbook of the US troubadour tradition, is at age 78 even less inclined to stop constructing and deconstructing the stories he has told about himself and which so many have told about him.
Scorsese, who first turned his camera on Dylan in 1978 for The Last Waltz, a documentary about the singer’s legendary backing outfit and genius Americana musicians in their own right, The Band, has always been fascinated by Dylan and his many transformations over the years — a series of orchestrated reinventions that have seen the singer spit in the face of assumptions about what kind of music he should play and who he should be in spite of the adoration of millions of fans across the world.
It was during one of these transformations that the then 34-year-old Dylan undertook his Rolling Thunder Revue tour in 1975. After the crossover to electric instruments that had prompted spittle-filled hatred from his original folk base and cries of “Judas” in the mid-1960s and, following a near fatal motorcycle accident in 1966, Dylan had only recently returned to the public arena after his soundtrack work on (and cameo in) Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid in 1973 and his release of The Basement Tapes with The Band in 1975.
For his next trick, the voice of his generation assembled a motley crew of star instrumentalists and performers, including Patti Smith, the Birds’ Roger McGuinn, David Bowie’s glam rock pioneering partner in crime Mick Ronson and the long-time Dylan praise singer and beat legend Allen Ginsberg, put them on a bus (which Dylan often drove) and embarked on a tour of small venues across the US to predominantly promote the new material that would become the 1976 masterpiece Desire.
Along the way, the revue, constructed as a kind of post-Nixon/Watergate/Vietnam reimagining of an old-time Wild West era carnival show, would pick up other luminaries of the scene, including Dylan’s old flame Joan Baez and new holder of the folk torch Joni Mitchell.
The whole wild, crazy spectacle was Dylan’s somewhat mild but uncharacteristically debauched version of the kind of thing ’70s audiences would expect from the over-the-top antics of megabands such as The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin and, because he was in the throes of a breakup with his wife Sara, the star took advantage of the situation.
Using archive filmed by two film crews during the tour for the film that was released in 1978 as Renaldo and Clara, Scorsese subtly presents what, for those who don’t know, may just seem a straight document of the events, but which to those who know will offer several sly, fictional takes on the madness that remind us that as he demonstrated in his 2004 pseudo-autobiography Chronicles, Bob Dylan is firmly in control of his own legend.
There’s a fictional filmmaker who Dylan claims to have hated and a not-very-likely tall tale about a young Sharon Stone being cajoled backstage as a teen but there are also the live performances and real-life appearances which remind us that most of this is true and that Dylan on stage, whether covered in white-face with a slightly manic wide-eyed look on his face or simply taking up a taunt to perform one of his classic folk hits, was still an undeniable force of musical nature to be reckoned with.
If you need any evidence, simply watch him deliver a fast-paced, urgent version of Isis, the greatest troubadour storytelling song of his career, which appears on Desire. Scorsese, whose own career has walked alongside the period of mid-’70s to present-day Dylan, knows very well what is going on, even if the uninitiated audience may not. Together, he and his self-mythologising co-conspirator have shown that old men can teach everyone new tricks while still giving us all a profoundly significant insight into mythmaking and self-expression in an age when uncertainty is the new normal and history is ever more urgently repeating itself.
• Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese is available on Netflix.