Steven Heller | Reviews

The Rolling Thunder Revue Unreview

On the afternoon of June 12 my head felt like a beach ball stuffed with sand and slowly leaking air—the symptom of a bad cold I caught two days earlier on a flight from Milan’s Malpensa to NYC’s Kennedy airport. That’s when I began watching The Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese. I thought that watching this much anticipated film by two masters would be a curative. To say I am a fan of Dylan is like saying Pope Francis is a fan of God. Dylan may not be God but more than any of the artists that I revere he has the charismatic power to move me from dark to light through lyric, gesture and sound. So, for two-hours plus I was indeed relieved of the miserable head, nose and throat discomfort—and transported into a state of blissful otherworldliness.

Then it was over and I returned back inside the beach ball.

Gone were the feelings of euphoria and elation upon sight of the jugglers and the clowns as they did tricks for me (notably Allen Ginsberg—“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness”—Joan Baez, and Roger McGuinn). So quickly did these feelings disappear, like the 12-hour-lasting Aleve I took earlier that morning, that I spun into a vortex of despair. Yes, I loved this film so much that I was renewed, however, when it ended my body was back to its sickly state, this time saddened by a sense of emptiness. There’s more to a cold than just chills, fever and congestion, there’s helplessness that comes even with minor or temporary debilitation. In the film Dylan says “there’s nothing left of Rolling Thunder, it’s all dust.” I’ve been morbidly indulging in thoughts about dust lately—more than usual.

By the way, this is not a review of the Dylan/Scorsese documentary about a legendary performance tour. It started out to be that, but I really could not find enough patience to go scene by scene rehashing the ingenious moments. Much has already been written about the totally believable fictional interviews performed by actors and inserted throughout the vintage clips (read Rolling Stone or the New York Times for that). Instead my short story and/or ersatz confession is an insomniac’s morning-after, narcissistic musing about the buttons that the film so skillfully pushed and how my tightly secured, fireproof, waterproof, drug-resistant emotional lock-box was unhinged by its artistry.

It is not news that artists and designers have the power to move us. The best are sorcerers who, when they blend tangible and intangible ingredients into a strange brew of image, sound and nuanced message, the results can either uplift or drag down. Rolling Thunder uplifted my aching body as it made me conscious of feelings that lately I’ve been trying to suppress.

For me the power of this filmic experience is its all-consuming intensity. Seeing Dylan’s white grease-painted face contrasting with his off-white teeth, and the penetrating stare of his searing blue eyes was the first time, even as an ardent Bob Dylan music devotee, that I have ever witnessed such charisma. Hypnotic, sure. Entertaining, of course. But so much more bedeviling. Bottle that pure essence and evil-doers could control the world. I wanted to physically share in that vintage happening in some way but was imprisoned in my beach ball. The Rolling Thunder Revue both drained and filled me with spiritual ardor—I alternately felt happiness, sadness, hope and melancholy. It made me long to find (indeed possess the ability to invent) a similar way to express myself. But these are Dylan’s genes not mine. I am not genetically capable of making art like that.

Dylan is asked whether after all these decades of creating art is he still searching for something. His reply, more or less: Life is not about searching it is about building. As the film shows, he built something that means many things to many people. Me, I’m still searching for my rolling thunder. Watching, I felt like a puppet pulled across a stage, as so many of us are, while Dylan, one hell of a puppet-master, not only pushed my buttons he pulled my strings. Over five days I binged on The Rolling Thunder Revue six times believing that somewhere in this film is the answer to a question I have yet to ask. Then again, maybe it’s just the side effects of too much Aleve. In any case, I urge you to see it.

Posted in: Music

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