Rolling Thunder Revue on Blu-ray

With a title like Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese, you know this movie isn’t going to be entirely serious. Yes, it’s a documentary by one of our most brilliant and generally serious auteurs. But it’s also a rockumentary. And since it’s tongue-in-cheek and isn’t totally real, it’s also a mockumentary. Part of the fun is trying to figure out what is real and what is not.

First of all, this is one of the best rock documentaries of recent years. As he did in The Last Waltz, Scorsese finds the right balance between telling a story and just letting us enjoy the music. Unlike so many recent rock docs, you get to enjoy many songs from beginning to end.

I’ve been a Dylan fan for almost 50 years, and this is a treasure. These old, rediscovered and restored film clips contain the best Dylan videos I’ve ever seen. While wearing white face, his bright blue eyes jump out with an intensity I’ve never seen before. He becomes a powerhouse. His performance of Isis feels like a musical assault – but one you would completely enjoy.

Former partner Joan Baez was on the tour, and did more than just singing. You can see her joking, disguising herself as Dylan (and getting away with it), and dancing like nobody danced before. And then there’s the other Joan of that time – Joanie Mitchell – singing Coyote in a hotel room crowded with other musicians listening transfixed.

The story: In 1975 and ’76, Bob Dylan set up what would become one of the most famous tours in rock history: The Rolling Thunder Revue. This loose conglomeration of the famous and soon-to-be-famous at one time or another contained Allen Ginsberg, Patti Smith, Roger McGuinn, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and fiddler Scarlet Rivera.

Unlike The Last Waltz, this film was put together mostly from clips shot more than 40 years ago. There are plenty of newly-shot interviews, giving us a historical perspective. And here’s the trick: Not all of these new interviews are the real thing, and that’s part of the fun. In the most obvious fake, actor Michael Murphy (Manhattan) is interviewed not as Michael Murphy, but as Jack Tanner, the character he played in the Robert Altman TV series Tanner 88. You’ll have to wonder for yourself if a teenage Sharon Stone really did travel with the tour.

This is at least the third movie to document the Rolling Thunder tour. First came Hard Rain, a TV special of the tour’s concert in Fort Collins, CO. Then came Renaldo and Clara, the four-hour snooze fest that proved that Bob Dylan should never be allowed to direct a movie. But by mixing both real and fake documentary footage, Scorsese got it right.

How It Looks

You can easily tell the difference between new and old footage by the aspect ratio. The original 16mm footage from 1975-76 is pillarboxed to 1.33×1. It’s very grainy, as you’d expect, but it’s also clean and with good color.

The new interviews were shot digitally in 1.78×1 – the shape of a modern television. That means no pillar- or letterboxing is needed. As you’d expect, it’s clean and sharp.

A few shots are in other aspect ratios.

How It Sounds

The film is presented in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. It’s not quite as good as a new concert recording, but it still comes close.

There’s also a descriptive audio option.

And the Extras

  • The 55-page booklet has articles (most of which are in poetry) by Dana Spiotta, Sam Shepard, Allen Ginsberg, and Anne Waldman. There’s also About the Master (about the master film elements, not Scorsese)
  • Martin Scorsese: 17 minutes. He discusses what the tour meant to him, his love of the moving picture, and how this came together. Interesting.
  • Editor David Tedeschi: 12 minutes. He discusses shaping the film (even though he thinks it barely has a shape).
  • Larry “Ratso” Sloman: 19 minutes. As a Rolling Stone reporter, Sloman covered much of the tour. Interesting and occasionally funny.
  • Additional Performances: 14 minutes. Not as good as the performances in the movie, but still worth being saved from the cutting-room floor. The songs are:
    • Tonight, I’ll Be Staying Here with You
    • Romance in Durango
    • Tangled Up in Blue
  • Restoration Demonstration: three minutes. All they had was a scratched, dirty, and faded work print, and here’s how they brought the images back to life.

  • Trailer: Two minutes.

If you have a Netflix account, you can watch Rolling Thunder
without spending any more money. But the disc will give you better sound, maybe slightly improved images, and the extras.