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'Rolling Thunder Revue' review: Martin Scorsese's doc shows a hidden side of Bob Dylan

Netflix's "Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story"

Netflix's "Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story" by Martin Scorsese captures the troubled spirit of America in 1975 and the joyous music that Bob Dylan performed during the fall of that year.  Credit: Netflix

THE DOCUMENTARY "Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story"

WHEN | WHERE Streaming on Netflix

WHAT IT'S ABOUT In the fall of 1975, post-Watergate, post-Vietnam, Bob Dylan launched a rambling, ramshackle concert tour called the Rolling Thunder Revue. Essentially a traveling festival, the revue aimed to uplift and nourish a dispirited America with an all-star lineup that included Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Roger McGuinn and Ramblin' Jack Elliott, plus beat poet Allen Ginsberg. The tour stopped at mostly small venues so Dylan could connect with audiences in a way he and they both needed. 

Cameras documented the tour, though much of the footage went unseen. Director Martin Scorsese, a longtime Dylan fan (1978's "The Last Waltz," 2005's "No Direction Home: Bob Dylan"), has restored and reassembled the material to tell the story of both a pivotal moment in the singer's career and an overlooked cultural event. 

MY SAY Poet, prophet, enigma — Dylan is many things, but Soother of the American Soul seems an unlikely one. His songs are ominous, his personality prickly; he's the quintessential temperamental artiste. Few were surprised when the guy who went electric at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival barely bothered to collect his 2016 Nobel Prize for literature. 

What a shock, then, to see Dylan fired up and giving it his all during the Rolling Thunder Revue. This is Dylan as rock star, with cheeks painted white, eyes ringed in black, body-language big enough for Broadway. He's miming, practically kabuki-ing his way through songs like "Isis" and "One More Cup of Coffee (Valley Below)." Is there a Bowie influence at work? Maybe: Bowie's former guitarist Mick Ronson is here, sticking out like a glam thumb among the hippies.

The concert footage alone would make "Rolling Thunder Revue" worth seeing, but there are other gems. One is Dylan and Ginsberg visiting Jack Kerouac's grave; another is Mitchell playing a freshly penned version of "Coyote" at a late-night jam session. Some of the best moments involve Baez and Dylan, two moths still dancing around each other's flame.  "Joan Baez and me could sing anything together," Dylan says a bit wistfully. "A lot of times, when I was sleeping, I would hear her voice."

The bad news: Much of this documentary is fake. Stefan van Dorp, the director who shot the raw footage, is a fictional character played by an actor. Sharon Stone talks about attending the revue and catching Dylan's eye, but the story is made up. Congressman Jack Tanner waxes eloquent about the show's impact, but he isn't real; he's the title character from the HBO mockumentary "Tanner '88." It all has something to do with the masks Dylan used on tour, and with Scorsese's interest in cinema-as-illusion. Whatever — it isn't cute and it doesn't work.

It would have been nice to take "Rolling Thunder Revue" at face value and cherish every moment as a gift. Instead, we have to wonder whether this lovely character, or that line of dialogue, might actually be a deadpan joke. One thing that's real, though, are Dylan's riveting, full-force performances. We have to agree with Baez: "Everything is forgiven," she says, "when I see Bob sing."

BOTTOM LINE A hidden side of Dylan, brought to light by one of his biggest fans. 

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