Originally launching on Netflix in the summer of 2019, Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story is a difficult film to explain. The pseudo-documentary from Martin Scorsese covering Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue tour of 1975 is composed of both fictional and non-fictional material, and does not differentiate between the two accounts throughout the film – with both real and fictional figures interviewed. It is up to the audience to decide what is real and what isn’t.
While Scorsese’s previous documentary on the celebrated musician, 2008’s No Direction Home, was a more accessible and for lack of a better word ‘normal’ film, this experimental and psychedelic film is perhaps more befitting of its subject and the era it celebrates – but certainly one that will continue to divide audiences looking for ‘real’ insight into Dylan. The film’s fast-and-loose approach with the truth is certainly an interesting and unique approach to the genre, but if you take truth out of documentary, what are you left with? To audiences unaware of the film’s fictional side, Rolling Thunder Revue’s bizarre and misleading narrative will be taken as gospel. It seems self-indulgent and arguably rather cruel of the filmmakers to intentionally misinform audiences.
Thankfully, Rolling Thunder Revue more than makes up for its misfiring delivery with lots of stunningly restored footage from the ’75 tour of the same name, showing the celebrated musician at his best. The material is astounding, and fans of Dylan will be thrilled with every frame of the rare footage. This new 4K master of the film – supervised by Scorsese – brings this footage to life and transports viewers right onto the stage with Bob.
But as the lengthy film goes on, Scorsese’s “narrative mischief” creates a bizarre final product that you’ll either love or hate. Critics and audiences have been split and it is certainly very easy to see why. As a cultural record and an examination of art, music and creativity, one could argue it succeeds. But in this current era of disinformation and so-called “fake news”, it’s difficult to get behind a documentary – a genre built around truth – that is so riddled with bizarre and unwarranted mistruths.
I hold my hands up and freely admit that I absolutely do not understand the approach behind Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story. Its structure and delivery are questionable at best, but Scorsese and Dylan fans will be delighted to have this unique film in their collections.