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Review: “Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story” on Netflix

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Director Martin Scorsese is known for making good use of classic rock in his movies, most often the Rolling Stones. It makes sense that he would be fascinated by rock’s most famous songwriter, Bob Dylan. His second documentary about the music icon, “Rolling Thunder Revue,” became available to stream today on Netflix.

The documentary covers Dylan’s legendary Rolling Thunder tour from 1975 when he and a growing group of musical friends played intimate venues in mid-sized American cities, self-promoting them with fliers as Dylan drove a camper into town. This traveling gypsy circus featured artists from Joan Baez and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott to glam guitarist Mick Ronson, Joni Mitchell, Roger McGuinn and the mysterious, sword-toting violinist Scarlet Rivera, who Dylan found playing on the street in the Lower East Side.

Unlike 2005’s “No Direction Home,” Scorsese's more traditional account of Dylan's rise to fame, the director cuts loose this time, allowing for more creative license. He isn’t constrained by facts, instead providing a weirdly cohesive, hybrid mix of non-fiction and fiction that better suits his chameleon-like subject. If you’ve read any books about Dylan, you know he’s a shapeshifter, a brilliant songwriter who has been famous for over 50 years largely by appropriating various styles into his own.

“Life isn't about finding yourself, or finding anything," Dylan says early in the film. "Life is about creating yourself and creating things."

The movie begins by setting the time and place of the tour: a still raw, post-Watergate, post-Vietnam War America whose citizens are entering a celebratory bicentennial period with intense soul-searching and probably the most collective sense of unease until Sept. 11, 2001 would come along.

In a way, it’s as if Scorsese took the sketchy idea behind Dylan’s own “Renaldo and Clara” film, a critically dismissed 1978 foray into moviemaking that mixed tour footage and acting, and gave it clearer shape and meaning. The Rolling Thunder tour was a rejection of stadium show excess, or as Dylan describes it, a musical extension of the old Italian “commedia dell’arte” tradition of improvisational, traveling theater.

Compatriots like Patti Smith and playwright Sam Shepherd show up, as well as poet Allen Ginsberg, who notes that this traveling circus is composed of wax pilgrims who are trying to find or rekindle some kind of poetry at the heart of the country. In one memorable scene, he and Dylan visit the grave of Jack Kerouac, reciting his poetry.

So how can you tell the fake parts? It can be hard. Actress Sharon Stone tells a story about being a teen fan at the show and Dylan basically flirting with her, while she later takes him to a Kiss concert. (There’s an old black-and-white photo that appears to confirm a young Stone talking to the singer.) Dylan plays along, claiming that he got the idea to wear white face paint on this tour from Kiss, who were "kinda interesting." The doc also features talking-head interviews with a fake promoter, fake director, and fake Congressman Jack Tanner, seemingly named after the political character in Robert Altman's mockumentary, “Tanner '88.” While it can be difficult to tell who was there and who wasn’t -- it's engrossing nonetheless.

Even with Scorsese clearly having fun with the narrative, the best thing about the documentary may be the restored live performances: scenes of Dylan and Baez singing “I Shall Be Released,” almost punk versions of “Isis” and “Hurricane” from the “Desire” album, which provides much of the new material on the tour. Joni Mitchell practicing "Coyote" with Dylan at Gordon Lightfoot's house, or even Dylan belting out a fiery “Simple Twist of Fate” to delighted elderly women playing mahjong in a hotel lobby.

Some older friends who attended this tour described the shows to me once as miraculous, just the energy and enthusiasm alone. It was arguably the finest era for Dylan’s unusual singing voice, long before it deteriorated to today’s full-on croak. Some hardcore fans consider the Rolling Thunder tour his best ever, even though Dylan didn’t perform much from his then new “Blood on the Tracks” album, considered a masterpiece today.

Also interesting about the film is the seamlessly edited background footage of American life in the mid-'70s, grainy images that buzz around the periphery, interspersed with footage of Nixon and later, Jimmy Carter, who quotes Dylan when describing America as a country still “busy being born.” Another shot of the audience directly after the concert shows its profound effect as people stare, wild-eyed, and one woman breaks down into tears and is helped away by a friend.

If Dylan understands deeply about something besides songwriting and performing, it’s the strange nature of fame. And this rollicking tour and documentary seem framed by artifice and in particular, the use of masks, on which the singer places a special significance:

“People only tell the truth when they're wearing a mask,” he says.

A hopeful coda is provided by Ginsberg, the official shaman of sorts for the tour, who hones in on the communal nature of the whole endeavor and the lasting appeal of a life spent in pursuit of art:

“You, who saw it all, or saw flashes and fragments, take from us some example. Try and get yourselves together, clean up your act,” he says, facing the camera. “Find your community, pick up on some kind of redemption of your own consciousness. Become more mindful of your own friends, your own work, your own proper meditation, your own proper art, your own beauty. Go out and make it for your own eternity.”

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