Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Jun 14, 2019 8:49 pm 
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A brilliant new (and historical) doc reaffirms Bob Dylan's legacy and currency

"You! Who saw it all, or saw flashes and fragments, take from us some example. Try and get yourselves together. Clean up your act. Find your community. Pick up on some kind of redemption of your own consciousness. Become more mindful of your own friends, your own work, your own proper meditation, your own proper art, your own beauty. Go out and make it for your own eternity." These words of Allen Ginsberg are spoken toward the end of the tour that is reimagined and recreated by Martin Scorsese in his remarkably fresh and exciting documentary culled from rarely seen footage, and interviews, some fanciful. They return to 1975, when Bob Dylan took a bunch of friends on a musical tour of small towns of America.The impeccably edited two-hour-plus film is now available on Netflix, under whose auspices it was made, relying heavily on digitally reformatted footage shot for Bob Dylan during the tour for his film Renaldo and Clara.

It includes rousing and fun performances of full-length songs performed by Bob, Joan, Joni Mitchell and the tour band (but not The Band) and commentary by various people, including Bob Dylan and Joan Baez today, and a couple of people pretending they are people they aren't, a non-existent promoter and a non-existent film director, and some apocrypha or fanciful anecdotes, including an invented affair with Sharon Stone as a teenage groupie, and other true ones. Patti Smith is briefly present. Allen Ginsberg is there, a poet and sage, performing and then, when there was no time for him, just helping shift baggage around, humble and essential at once.

There is a moment when Ginsberg and Dylan visit the grave of Jack Kerouac, commune, and sit crosslegged paying their respects to the iconic voice of the Beats. Bob wears a wide-rimmed hat with peacock feathers (but they look like a bunch of flowers) on it when he performs, and he and Joan wear chalky white pancake makeup and eye liner, an idea said to be inspired by Jean-Louis Barrault in the 1945 French film classic The Children of Paradise, though Dylan pretends it came from seeing an early Kiss concert (which he never did). More generally, as David Remnick puts it in his enthusiastic and personal New Yorker review-appreciation, Rolling Thunder Revue was "an anti-corporate return to the days of travelling tricksters, medicine shows, and carnivals."

When you first see Dylan performing with the heavy makeup it provides an added frisson, heightening the sense of energy and charisma the 35-year-old bard, then in his prime, projects, and which Baez, who seems still in love with him, affirms today. "When he is performing," she says, "you can never feel anything is wrong." There is a scene (back then) when they look into each other's eyes and seem to wonder why they married other people and not each other. Together, Dylan says today, he and Joan could perform anything.

There were masks too. Dylan says people can only tell the truth when they wear them. His other idea behind the Revue, the more important one, was the traditional Italian traveling companies of the Commedia dell'arte. With their masks, with their routines, they were free. That freedom is captured in the Rolling Thunder performances.

But the Rolling Thunder Review, Dylan says is now "nothing but dust." He claims to be unable to remember anything of it. Nevertheless we gather a gradually strengthening sense of it. It emerges as more an educational project, not a money-making or fame-seeking one. It followed Ginsberg's advice, to "Find your community. Pick up on some kind of redemption of your own consciousness. Become more mindful of your own friends." Ginsberg was a catalyst, long following Dylan, altering the sense of things by his mere presence.

The film refutes the notion that when he shifted from acoustic to electronic and from solo to a motley band and chorus, Bob Dylan gave up protest songs, because his most famous protest songs are here. One concert was held on an Indian reservation. He sings "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll." He sings "Hurricane" and we hear about Dylan's visit to Rubin "Hurricane" Carter in jail and Carter is heard from today. There is great energy in Dylan's performances here, and some of it is powered by anger. And he is radically altering the songs as he performs them, savaging the rhythms and the notes but carving out the words with righteous, proud precision. The main transition that these years with the Band and this tour signals seems a transformation away from the late-Fifties-early-Sixties coziness of folk to something broader and more mainstream and more social than the solitary, appealing, waif Bob Dylan we see performing in Pennebaker's 1967 Don't Look Back, then a charmer with a sour and provocative side. Now in 1975 he is a white hot superstar, inaccessible but more emotionally open, who miraculously preserves the manner of an outsider.

Scorsese has proven an important screen chronicler of Bob Dylan. He started out indirectly with The Last Waltz, his carefully crafted 1978 film of the final concert of The Band, who had toured with Dylan. His 2005 documentary No Direction Home is a brilliant documentary directly focused on Bob Dylan in the Sixties. It essentially and lucidly shows how Bob Dylan became Bob Dylan. This new film may seem more peripheral, even ephemeral. But that reductive assessment proves to be quite wrong. It is both a riveting concert film, a rich and complex portrait of a hard-to-define musical moment, and a tour that, thanks to Scorsese, is now made accessible to a wide audience, and as far as you can get from being "nothing but dust."

Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story, 142 mins, was shown in one festival, Sydney, then released on the Internet by Netflix June 12, 2019, and being shown on some big screens around the country. Metascore 86%.


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