Calleri

A rare photograph shows singer Bob Dylan visiting the falls before his Rolling Thunder Revue concert in Niagara Falls in 1975. 

It’s a brave new world of movie watching, what with bigger televisions and better sound systems for home viewing. Even I’m thinking my 40-inch flat-screen might be too small and my sound bar too inadequate. Additionally, new channel choices for streaming films have been announced.

Netflix, the behemoth content creator, politely acting as if it honestly respects the rules of the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences, is willing to show some of its own movies in theaters before releasing them on its streaming channel, hopefully calming any outcry from proprietary Oscar folks and nervous exhibitors.

Historically, in order for a movie to be eligible for an Academy Award, it has to play a week in a theater in Los Angeles County.

This brings me to Bob Dylan, Martin Scorsese, and an adventure staging concerts out of altruism and a dedication to one’s fans.

“Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story By Martin Scorsese” is a Netflix production that played in theaters in a handful of major cities earlier this month. It’s now delighting fans of the troubadour from Minnesota, who are turning the 142-minute documentary into a much-discussed adventure in musical memories and the joys of repeat streaming.

The movie, directed by Scorsese with Dylan’s immensely interested co-operation follows the singer and his own band of Merry Pranksters (no involvement by Ken Kesey’s troupe) as they play concerts in 55 cities during two separate excursions. Autumn 1975 saw the Rolling Thunder Revue in the northeastern United States and Canada, and Spring 1976 finds them in the south and west.

The footage, with image and sound restored and enhanced by Scorsese and his team, reveals a relaxed series of good music, backstage fun and games, and a very loose and playful Dylan, who was tired of performing in huge arenas. He wanted to sing in small venues and charge low prices, so that his fans could be close to the stage and also be able to afford the tickets, which would be inexpensive.

Typical of the tour stops was an appearance on Saturday, November 15, 1975 in Niagara Falls, New York at the Convention Center. Dylan wanted to avoid nearby Buffalo’s cavernous Memorial Auditorium. There were two sold-out shows in The Falls, one in the afternoon at 4:00 and one in the evening at 9:00.

In Niagara Falls, Dylan was joined on stage by singers Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Roger McGuinn of The Byrds, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, as well as record producer-singer-songwriter Bobby Neuwirth, poet Allen Ginsberg, and the mysterious violinist, Scarlet Rivera.

In the audience at the 4:00 show were a quartet of Buffalo Bills football players, defensive end Pat Toomay, wide receiver Ahmad Rashad, offensive tackle Halvor Hagen, and legendary running back O. J. Simpson.

Dylan and others in his traveling musical circus also spent time before the concerts visiting the world-renown falls.

In addition to Dylan, the Rolling Thunder Revue consisted of numerous other singers, writers, and hangers-on, some of them regulars of the tour, but some coming and going. Singers Patti Smith and Eric Anderson are seen as part of the build-up. Playwright Sam Shepard, musician T Bone Burnett, boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, and actress Ronee Blakley are all caught on film.

There are a number of fascinating takeaways from Scorsese’s lively and completely engaging documentary and the best ones revolve around Dylan. He comes across as a pixieish master of ceremonies, a playful magician wearing white make-up or a see-through plastic mask, unsure of what will happen on the ramshackle escapade, but having the time of his life.

Dressed like the riverboat gambler character Thimblerig from the television show “Davy Crockett: King Of The Wild Frontier,” Dylan reminds you of a sleight-of-hand artist. A card sharp who prefers the joker.

Scorsese crosscuts the 1970s material with a contemporary interview with Dylan. The best response as he talks about the decades-old experience is when the singer is asked if there was any meaning to the Rolling Thunder Revue. Dylan says: “I don’t have a clue. It’s about nothing, it’s just something that happened 40-years ago. I don’t remember a thing about Rolling Thunder. It happened so long ago, I wasn’t even born.”

Even Scorsese is willing to prank his audience. An interview with a complaining Stefan van Dorp reveals some difficult filmmaking secrets, including his grumbling that he alone paid the cameramen and sound engineers who were shooting footage of the tour. However, van Dorp isn’t a real person. He’s played by the Argentinian-German performance artist Martin von Hasselberg and is called “The Filmmaker” in the credits. His real-life wife is Bette Midler, who you can see talking briefly to Dylan way back in 1975. Talk about art imitating life imitating art.

“Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story By Martin Scorsese” begins with silent movie footage of a magician making a woman disappear. This sends a predictive message to the audience.

In 1975, poet Ginsberg tells us: “Dylan might have some idea to do something, sort of like a con-man, carny, medicine show of old where you just get in a bus or a carriage and go from town to town.”

Dylan and Scorsese succeed in delivering a witty, sparkling, song-filled sense of history.

Michael Calleri reviews films for Night and Day. Contact him at moviecolumn@gmail.com.

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