The Criterion Collection release of Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story By Martin Scorsese contains a booklet with some short pieces written by the late, great Sam Shepard during his time on the road with the titular tour that interestingly enough feels key to understanding what Scorsese and Dylan are trying to accomplish with the new film. In “Where Does A Hero Live?,” Shepard compares the hunger to consume the tall tales of the American West with figures such as Jesse James and Buffalo Bill to the need to believe the stories of modern “heroes” such as rock stars and other artists. We want to believe there is something truly revelatory about these figures just because they dare to do something we are afraid to do, and they do it extremely well. In the opening moments of the film, Scorsese attempts to clue you into the mischievous nature of the project by showing a clip from the 1896 film The Vanishing Lady in which a magician makes a woman disappear and reappear. The elusive Bob Dylan would never be one to be content to do a straightforward recollection of his life at this point, so take his words as gospel at your own peril. The film is setting out to trick you, but our nature wants to believe the unbelievable. No matter how you consume the film, it is prime to speak to you on one level or another.
The Rolling Thunder Revue was Dylan’s attempt to step away from the stadium tours he had embarked upon with The Band in the early 70s that had left him creatively bereft. To get back to something real, Dylan decided to bring together some of the most brilliant minds of a generation for a series of intimate shows across the United States from 1975-76. Yet, the film begins framed by the bicentennial celebration of July 1976 in a bit of timeline manipulation. This decision is not an arbitrary one; America is at a point where it should be the most patriotic it has ever been, but the country is still contending with the ousting of Nixon, the failure of Vietnam and a palpable tension from injustices being perpetrated left and right. This is a moment of contradiction for the country that wants to reinvent itself in the same way Dylan is looking to create a new narrative for himself. Dylan is squirrelly when asked about the idea of the tour – offering seemingly straightforward answers one moment before proclaiming he was not even born at that time the next. Like America, Dylan is a man of contradiction hoping to spin a yarn intricate enough to say something honest.
Those who are not particularly interested in investigating the troubled heart of America should be content with taking the content at face value. It does not negatively impact your experience if you do not know that the prickly “director” of the vintage tour footage interviewed in the film is another fake embedded into the film. His colorful commentary on his contentious relationship with Dylan and other members of the tour are entertaining in their own right. You still get incredible footage of poet Allen Ginsberg performing at a ladies banquet to a quietly content crowd. You have Joni Mitchell backstage amongst her peers as she delivers a transcendent performance of the newly-written “Coyote” that sends shivers up your spine. And most importantly, you have Dylan at the height of his powers performing clad in white face paint every night and delivering some of the best renditions of these tunes you have ever heard. Songs such as “Oh, Sister” or “One More Cup of Coffee” sound as energized as they ever have been from this Dylan who is truly connecting with his audience for the first time in a long time. Dylan is known to be a lot of things, but joyous would not typically be the first word you would choose. But then you see the man smiling and laughing as he pours his heart into each and every one of these songs.
The film weaves in the more thematically relevant cultural moments as the tour progresses without abandoning the music. In one of the most enriching moments of the film, Dylan visits the Tuscarora Reservation in New York to pay his respects to the indigenous people and the legacy of Ira Hayes, the Pima man who helped in the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima only to return to a life of heartache. The solitary performance of “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” is chilling in its execution, as Dylan manages to condense so much pain into such a short experience. Dylan takes things a step further when he is shown offering his support to the wrongly convicted Rubin “Hurricane” Carter by visiting him in prison and trying to convince his record company to rush out his song “Hurricane” as a sign of solidarity. The subsequent performance of the song by the revue is one of the most blistering sequences you gain from the entire project. Dylan is not ignorant to the troubles of the country, and Scorsese does not allow the film to be either. Rolling Thunder Revue is a film that can be analyzed and picked apart, or it can be one that washes over you like an energizing balm to the soul. The film is a paradox showcasing Bob Dylan at his most deceptive and his most honest. The ambiguity is where the artistry comes through.
Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story By Martin Scorsese comes to Blu-Ray with an impeccable looking transfer. The film is presented in its original aspect ratios of predominantly 1.33:1 for the vintage tour footage and 1.78:1 for the newly shot interviews. The master was derived from a 16mm workprint of the tour footage scanned and restored in 4K resolution. The film features a lot of different material in varying degrees of quality. The more modern footage looks as technically excellent as it can look in high definition. Interview segments look incredibly sleek and clear with natural skin tones and detailed facial features. The colors featured in the film are natural and vibrant as they provide a nice visual pop on screen. Black levels are appropriately deep and give way to a nice amount of detail in shadows. The vintage footage that was rescued and restored looks simply amazing. When you take a look at how the original elements looked in some of the special features, you will be blown away by how natural and filmic everything looks in these instances. The transfer appears to have plenty of room to breathe and there are no issues with compression artifacts, banding or other digital nuisances. The Criterion Collection has treated this film with the utmost care.
This Blu-Ray comes with an excellent DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track that delivers an expertly designed audio experience. Music is the driving force of the film, and it comes through in a warm and vibrant manner without any instances of age-related wear and tear or damage. Many of these songs are performed with an intensity that allows them to sound better than the recorded versions, and this is showcased perfectly here as the music fills the room. Scorsese and company do a really great job of capturing the interview subjects and making sure all of the dialogue comes through with supreme clarity. Even the vintage footage has been given a new life through a beautiful restoration that allows subtle moments to not get lost in the busy locations. The chatter backstage, in clubs or throughout the crowd that they chose to film provides a nice base texture to the proceedings. Ambient sounds from treks into nature are precisely placed in the rear channels. The audio track is working on many different levels with disparate elements that come together to create something quite magical.
The Criterion Blu-Ray of Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story By Martin Scorsese includes a substantial booklet featuring the essay “American Multitudes” by author Dana Spiotta, as well as a selection of short impressionistic entries from “The Rolling Thunder Logbook” by actor and playwright Sam Shepard. This booklet also contains a selection of poems entitled “Rolling Thunder Stones” by Allen Ginsberg and a long journal poem entitled “Shaman Hisses You Slide Back Into the Night” by author Anne Waldman. All of these works provide a great amount of context and insight into the film and the original tour that is so worthwhile. The on-disc special features are as follows:
- Martin Scorsese: A seventeen-minute conversation with director Martin Scorsese recorded in 2019 in which he discusses his inspiration and influences behind the movie. Marty talks about why it is hard to trust anything Dylan actually says when he is reflecting on his experiences and how he used the freedom from the restriction of truth to create something unconventional and timeless. After listening to his reasoning for why he constructed the film like he did, you gain an even greater appreciation for what is accomplished.
- David Tedeschi: A twelve-minute interview conducted in 2020 with longtime Scorsese collaborator David Tedeschi in which he discusses editing the film through restoration and combing through hours of footage. He also discusses how his original approach evolved from something more dull to something more open-hearted and energetic to capture the spirit of the times.
- Larry “Ratso” Sloman: A nineteen-minute interview with journalist Larry “Ratso” Sloman in which he discusses his book On the Road with Bob Dylan and his experiences with the Rolling Thunder Revue. Sloman gives some background of how he got into working with Rolling Stone, the story behind his nickname, his conversations with Dylan and more.
- Additional Performances: Three additional performances totaling fourteen minutes are provided here. As expected, they are all wonderful. The included performances are as follows:
- “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You” – Montreal Forum, Montreal, Quebec, Canada – December 4, 1975
- “Romance In Durango” – Harvard Square Theatre, Cambridge, Massachusetts – November 20, 1975
- “Tangled Up In Blue” – Boston Music Hall, Boston – November 21, 1975
- Restoration Demonstration: A three-minute look with Martin Scorsese at how the workprint was meticulously restored to help not create distance between the audience and the performance.
- Trailer: A two-and-a-half-minute trailer that does not really give you a sense of the ambiguity of truth, but does show a lot of great concert footage.
Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story By Martin Scorsese is an experience unlike anything you are able to get from many other films. With Scorsese and Dylan, you have two masters coming together to tell a story that is willing to engage with you beyond the surface level. Casual Dylan fans should also walk away pleased after they have witnessed some of the most explosive performances of his storied career. The Criterion Collection has delivered a new Blu-Ray that offers a 5-star A/V presentation and some very cool special features. Highly Recommended
The Criterion Collection edition of Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story By Martin Scorsese will be available to purchase on January 19, 2021 on Blu-Ray and DVD.
Note: Images presented in this review are not reflective of the image quality of the Blu-Ray.
Disclaimer: The Criterion Collection has supplied a copy of this disc free of charge for review purposes. All opinions in this review are the honest reactions of the author.
Dillon is most comfortable sitting around in a theatre all day watching both big budget and independent movies.