This movie is made for tomorrow not today. Kind of like “Don’t Look Back,” a footnote when it was released, a legendary artifact from the past today, a rite for college students. Maybe because that era does not exist anymore. When performers could be mysterious, and stay that way. Today it’s all about self-revelation, documenting every detail of your life in order to bond an audience to you. But the truth is with nothing underneath, purveyors get no traction, or are instantly forgotten. Music, when done right, is the other. Something ethereal that you truly cannot describe accurately, something you’ve got to experience, something delivered for your mind, not for your wallet.
Parts of this movie are fake. I point you to this Vulture article for an explanation: bit.ly/2Xnpm0m But the thing is too much time has passed, there are few Dylanologists, most people believe the falsehoods, and therefore the trick falls flat. Kinda like that old question, “If a tree falls in a forest…”
But that’s not the way it was when Dylan broke, we hung on every word.
And although disco came along and killed corporate rock, and the music industry tanked at the end of ’79, it is kind of curious that Dylan survived in that era, because he wasn’t playing what anybody else was, although Mark Knopfler is all over ’79’s “Slow Train Coming.” Then again, as a “Christian” album, many people ignored it. I’m waiting for the renaissance in reputation, “Slow Train Coming,” with Knopfler and production by Barry Beckett and Jerry Wexler, is a monster, check it out.
Now I saw the Rolling Thunder Revue. I had to.
But not everybody did.
You see Dylan had come back the previous year, with the Band, documented in the “Before The Flood” double LP on Geffen. That’s a famous story, how Dylan screwed Geffen, how Dylan gave him two albums and then went back to Columbia. Sure, Geffen ended up a billionaire, but Dylan didn’t care.
That theme runs throughout the movie. Dylan just doesn’t care. About the audience’s expectations. About making money. This was an experience, and no amount of money would buy you a spot in the Rolling Thunder Revue. This was when there were no billionaires, and the corporation wasn’t trusted, especially by musicians. Hell, the footage at CBS, with Walter Yetnikoff, is so uncomfortable. Dylan’s out of place, the suits are trying to appease him, but you know that everybody just wants to get back to their own world.
But Walter has said that Bob Dylan introduced him to his mother.
You see Dylan’s a cipher. Who created a myth from day one, when he got to New York. And he was aided by his manager, Albert Grossman, and became so successful, he could do whatever he wanted to. Dylan would have never made it without Albert. All superstars owe their breakthrough to a manager, who opened doors, who pushed. In Dylan’s case, Grossman got covers, Bob was famous for his songwriting long before he penetrated the recorded music market.
So there was press. Rolling Thunder was a big story in the “New York Times,” it was covered by “Rolling Stone,” if you were interested, you found out. But the dirty little secret is although the Stones do boffo on the road, they’ve always sold few records, and although Dylan’s got a rep nonpareil, the audience for his shows is not that huge. Watch the film and you’ll see why. There’s a limited audience for this music. But never underestimate Dylan’s wisdom, his talent, his impact. The biggest stars don’t top the chart, they impact the culture. Sometimes they do both, but rarely.
So there are so many nuggets in this movie. Joan Baez dancing. Whew! Who ever knew she was that young. And skinny. Like Dylan, like everybody else in this movie.
And Joni Mitchell is as charismatic as they get. When everybody is dressed down, she’s dressed up, with her beret, she’s got her look on. And her artistic sensibility is intact. She won’t play her hits on stage. And when she plays “Coyote” backstage in the movie… If you’re a fan, your brain is brought back to then, when you just wanted to live with your favorite artist and experience their lifestyle.
And when the whole gang sings “Love Potion #9″… That was the sixties, when we all knew the same songs and we could sing them and did.
Now unlike most music documentaries, “Rolling Thunder” includes whole songs. Which makes for a less than perfect viewing experience, it slows the pic down, but in future years these performances will be studied.
And to hear today’s Dylan talk… He’s the same guy, the same voice, the one from XM, the one in the commercials. Was he born that way or is it affected? Has he been doing it so long this is the only way he can speak? Believe me, they don’t talk that way in Hibbing, Minnesota.
And you’re hanging on every word. As Bob drops nuggets. Mostly evading the question, sometimes humble and other times arrogant.
So what we’ve got here is more akin to a movie than a documentary. Documentaries are about facts, movies are about suspending disbelief, falling for the myth. We’ve been falling for the Bob Dylan myth for over fifty years. He’s bobbed and weaved more times than Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. He’s outlasted everybody at his record label. Been through vinyl, cassettes, CDs and streaming. Always following the road less traveled, always one or two steps ahead of the audience.
Kind of like changing the melodies to his songs. He was doing that back in ’75, watch this film. He wants the music to be interesting to him, not us. He’s not trying to fulfill our wants, but to make us contemplate, and think, ending up with more questions than answers.
You couldn’t do a tour like this today. Economically, if for no other reason. And no one would care, there wouldn’t be a ton of press. and we’ve got themed festivals, like Lockn’ and…
If you lived through the seventies, you will recognize your past in this movie. When you wore bell bottoms, when grooming was lax, when it was still more about what was inside as opposed to outside, your brain and personality more than your bank account.
If you didn’t live through the seventies, you’ll probably be bored, you won’t get it. After all, it’s not like these songs are classics to you, the only one you hear now is “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door,” a throwaway for the film “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid,” in which Dylan had a minor role.
And Dylan has a long history of failed film projects, artistically as well as economically.
But this is something different. Once you realize you’ve been had, you step back and question what is real, not only in the movie, but Dylan’s life, your life.
That’s what art is supposed to do, challenge you, push you, make you think.
That’s the problem with cinema today, movies make tons of money, but almost all of them are empty calories.
So you’re better off tuning in to Netflix, where you can see the “Rolling Thunder Revue.” If you read the newspapers, you think you can only see it in the theatre. Don’t bother. There’s no reason. Don’t waste the time. Hell, watch it up close and personal on your iPad.
And turn on the subtitles, otherwise, you’ll miss too many lyrics and dialogue.
And at times you’ll be excited, and at times you’ll be bored, and when it’s all over you’ll yearn for those days of yore,
Most of those people are gone.
But not Bob Dylan, he keeps soldiering on.
Like a complete unknown, like a rolling stone.