The Collective Soul of Rebel America: Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese (2019)
On October 30th of 1975, Bob Dylan inaugurated a 2 year tour along the United States and Canada: the Rolling Thunder Revue. Mostly performed at small enclosures, the eccentric project that included some of the most innovative names of American counterculture, was both a musical (Joan Baez, Roger McGuinn or Joni Mitchell) and a poetic experience (Allen Ginsberg).
The first thing the spectator realizes at the end of the film, is that the title is a little bit tricky. Although Bob Dylan participates in the documentary and he is the pivotal element that unifies and gives coherence to the complete narrative, the documentary is not a “Bob Dylan story”. Instead, it is the story of the world surrounding Bob Dylan during the tour, that is to say, his crew, the audience, journalism, management, the political administrations of the 70’s and their relations with counterculture.
Taking into account the innumerable characters that participated in the tour and the tensions that surged from their conflicting interests, Scorsese’s choice was an effective device used to expose the existing tensions. The beautiful and raw aesthetic—of the youth who dreamed and acted with hope in better times to come—is perfectly settled by a production that makes the work seem a remastered version of a 70’s piece.
The documentary offers little insight in the life and inner thoughts of Bob Dylan, who is presented as a mythological character, a mysterious sex icon and poet whose only problem is the amount of people fighting for a spot by his side. The former is done by the interviewed, all tour participants, who do not reveal their thoughts about the man, instead, they describe the events shared with the almighty and hermetic rock and roll star.
Dylan’s true commitment to social causes is powerfully reflected. Issues such as gender and racial violence are expressed through some of his classics (The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll), as well as his direct contact with the communities that suffer them, such as Native Americans (The Ballad of Hira Hayes) and African Americans (Hurricane). As a result, nothing bad or problematic is said about Dylan, instead, he is exaggeratedly presented as a white male savior.
The Rolling Thunder Revue is Scorsese’s second documentary about Dylan after No Direction Home. We are in front of, on the one hand, a powerful and realistic narrative about the American 70’s that reflects both its social issues and the mysterious world surrounding the musical enterprise. On the other hand, the director presents an idealized representation of the protagonist, the introspective artist only concerned with sharing innovative art.
Problematic issues—such as why Allen Ginsberg and the rest of the poets were taken out of the stage forever—are exposed but not explained. However, the documentary is a good resource for those who wish to take an entertaining first sight to the counterculture world and the context in which Dylan wrote and performed some of his most influential pieces.
SUGGESTED CITATION: Saravia, Joaquín. 2020. “The Collective Soul of Rebel America: Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese (2019).” PopMeC Research Blog. Published 20 May 2020.