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In a year that has seen Steven Spielberg become the poster boy for anti-Netflix scepticism, his old peer Martin Scorsese is fully embracing the possibilities. In the autumn, his much-hyped, big-budget gangster film The Irishman will be released on the streaming service, but the 76-year-old has dipped a toe in the water with something a little smaller and funkier: another Bob Dylan documentary. I say “another”, but if you’re expecting a direct follow-up to Scorsese’s 2005 opus No Direction Home, or a concert film in the vein of 1978’s Dylan-featuring The Last Waltz, you’ll be surprised.
Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story, which has been streaming on Netflix since Wednesday, is something more puckish and, well, freewheeling than any of Scorsese’s previous music docs – the word “story”, for starters, shouldn’t be disregarded: there’s a bit of fabrication here amid the facts. Ostensibly, it’s a portrait of Dylan’s famous seven-month Rolling Thunder Revue concert tour from 1975 to 1976, which saw him – alongside a rotating coterie of friends and collaborators – perform in a series of smaller venues in smaller US cities, fostering an intimacy between artist and audience that he felt was lost in rock stadiums. And much of the unhurried 140-minute film delivers on that promise, in a jangly, haphazardly structured fashion that effectively evokes the cheerfully ragged ambience of the concerts themselves.
So we get priceless archive footage of a Brillo-bearded Allen Ginsberg bewildering polite midwestern audiences with ornately woolly poetry readings, or Joni Mitchell riffing on her then newborn song Coyote in a backstage jam session – alongside the perfectly selected Dylan stage performances you’d expect, from a transfixing version of One More Cup of Coffee to electrified renditions of his folkier 1960s standards to a duet with Joan Baez on I Shall Be Released that practically delivers a you-are-there quiver. Hey, Scorsese has always known how to choose a song; Dylanophiles will be more than sated.
But there’s a tricksier fictitious element to Rolling Thunder Revue that is already polarising the faithful. Amid the accompanying gallery of contemporary talking-head interviews with figures ranging from Baez to Sam Shepard – and some very funny running commentary from Dylan himself, who claims with a sigh to scarcely remember proceedings – are four fakes, inventing stories of their involvement with the project. Alleged film-maker “Stefan van Dorp” recalls his experiences of shooting the tour with amusing sourness; Sharon Stone reflects on her supposed time as a teenage roadie. It’s a droll gimmick designed to match Dylan’s own prankish sensibility, but a needless one given Scorsese’s wealth of more significant material: when we have boxer Rubin Carter, once falsely imprisoned for murder, on hand to talk about how Dylan’s song Hurricane helped reignite his case, such in-jokes feel like rather trivial sideshows.
Then again, this is a revue, after all: have the liberties of filming for Netflix put Scorsese in a more playful mood? Perhaps, though the baggy, immersive oddity of Rolling Thunder Revue still feels like more of a big-screen experience. No Direction Home and The Last Waltz, both available to stream on Amazon Prime, are still there for the traditionalists: the former with its loving, scholarly attention to biographical detail, and the latter (primarily capturing Dylan collaborators the Band, but with a galvanising appearance from the man) with a throbbing live current still unbeaten in the annals of concert cinema. But Scorsese’s latest feels no less true to its subject, nor to the film-maker’s own wily creativity. Netflix isn’t the end of him by a long shot.
Also on DVD this week
If Beale Street Could Talk
Barry Jenkins follows up Moonlight with a rapturous James Baldwin adaptation, creating saturated visual poetry to carry the author’s vigorous evocation of African American family life in 1970s Harlem.
Joel Edgerton’s heartfelt film of Garrard Conley’s gay-conversion therapy memoir is too tastefully reserved to get under the skin, but Lucas Hedges’s bruised lead performance makes it worthwhile.
Sharper and tarter than you might expect from the 1940s studio system, this William Wyler-directed take on Henry James’s Washington Square – with an Oscar-winning Olivia de Havilland in the lead – holds up beautifully.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Streaming: Scorsese’s freewheeling Dylan doc | Documentary films