Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese
In 1975, in an America defined by both the self-mythologizing pomp of the upcoming bicentennial and ongoing sociopolitical turmoil, Bob Dylan and a band of troubadours—including luminaries such as Joan Baez, Allen Ginsberg, and Joni Mitchell—embarked on a now-legendary tour known as the Rolling Thunder Revue, a freewheeling variety show that was part traveling counterculture carnival, part spiritual pilgrimage. Director Martin Scorsese blends behind-the-scenes archival footage, interviews, and narrative mischief, with a magician’s sleight of hand, into a zeitgeist-defining cultural record that is as much a concert “documentary” as it is a slippery, chimerical investigation into memory, time, truth, and illusion. At the center of it all is the magnetic Dylan, a sphinxlike philosopher-poet singing, with electrifying conviction, to the soul of an anxious nation.
The Criterion Collection presents the Netflix documentary Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese on a dual-layer Blu-ray disc. The film is sourced from a 4K digital master and presented here with a 1080p/24hz high-definition encode with aspect ratios that vary between 1.33:1 and 1.78:1.
The film is a bit of an odd beast, best explained as a mix of documentary and faux-documentary incorporating actual tour and concert footage. Yet according to Scorsese and editor David Tedeschi on separate interviews found on the disc, the primary purpose behind the project was to restore this previously unseen footage and present it in whatever fashion they could. The end results for the concert footage are shocking, especially after viewing the included restoration comparison found on this disc. The original negatives are long gone and all that exists is a work print (for a planned film that sounds to have been abandoned), which, to the surprise of no one, was heavily damaged with most of the colour drained out; magenta was about all that was left. None of those issues are evident now, though, all of that heavy damage removed and the colour restored. Film grain is present and rendered cleanly and naturally, and the picture around the tour and concert footage really looks like projected 16mm film. Colours also look spectacular, with gorgeous looking reds, and black levels manage to look rich and deep. It’s really shocking how good the filmed material ends up looking.
That footage was restored in 4K and then edited in with the modern wraparound “interview” footage, all of which was filmed in high-definition digital. This footage looks sharp with nice colours and surprisingly good black levels. It can come off a bit noisy at times but this simply looks like a byproduct of the digital photography and nothing else. It looks perfectly fine but that's about the extent of it.
As a whole the film looks great, but it’s the archival tour footage that really sticks out and impressed me most. The work that went into its restoration is beyond incredible.
The film comes with a 5.1 surround soundtrack, presented here in DTS-HD MA. The film is primarily made up of general tour footage and newer “interviews” so most of the activity is focused to the front channels, with some music and such spreading around. The track really doesn’t shine until we get to actual concert footage, where the acoustics are pushed around the viewer, putting them right in the middle of the performance, whether it be in a larger auditorium-like setting or what looks like some sort of community center. The sound quality of the archival footage is—much to my surprise—incredibly crisp and dynamic, sounding as though it could have been recorded recently. The music has been beautifully remastered.
The latest Netflix title to debut in the collection, the film is presented in a sturdy digipak accompanied by a 56-page booklet, giving it a nice collector’s edition feel. All of the Netflix titles really like to push the fancy packaging, I assume as an incentive for collectors to buy the title rather than just stick with streaming the film. Unfortunately this edition manages to underwhelm with the supplements, a bit of a surprise considering the film and its content. The bulk of the material is made up of new interviews: director Martin Scorsese (17-minutes), editor David Tedeschi (12-minutes), and writer Larry “Ratso” Sloman (19-minutes). Scorsese and Tedeschi’s contributions give some background to the project, which entailed getting the footage, restoring it, and then trying to construct something from it. They both end up confirming what seems pretty evident as you watch the film: though the performances were great, the footage as a whole wouldn’t really work on its own, and it didn’t fully capture the spirit behind the tour (or at least what Scorsese could get from Dylan regarding its purpose). This led to the construction of the faux-documentary aspect, blending fiction and reality, and Scorsese brings up Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up as a reference.
The interviews explain the thinking behind the film, but Sloman’s contribution recalls the actual tour (with the man even referencing his book around his time with Dylan), explaining how he was there to cover it for Rolling Stone and being taken by the energy and the spirit of it all, only to be later shocked at how the tour ended up amounting to nothing and being nearly forgotten (even Rolling Stone didn’t get it and Sloman and the magazine parted ways afterwards). Sloman also talks about his reaction to seeing the footage again decades later and explains how he got the “Ratso” nickname, which would have been a bit of an ego killer for most I'm sure.
From there the disc then contains 14-minutes worth of additional performances not used in the film, including “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here with You,” “Romance in Durango,” and “Tangled Up in Blue,” all of which can be played separately or one after the other. There is then a 3-minute restoration demonstration featuring Scorsese talking about the difficulty behind restoring the footage with side-by-side comparisons (the restoration is even more impressive once you see this footage). The disc then closes with the film’s original trailer.
The aforementioned booklet then features an essay on the film by Dana Spiotta (with some references to Scorsese’s other Dylan film, No Direction Home) followed by writings from the time period, including some short writings by Sam Shepard (who jotted them down while touring with Dylan); a selection of poems by Allen Ginsberg (which appeared in Rolling Stone around the time); and then a lengthy “journal poem” by Anne Waldman.
The booklet is a very nice addition and probably the best supplement to be found in the set. The rest of the material, though decent enough, leaves what I can only call a “that’s it?” feeling.
The supplements are incredibly underwhelming, with a sort of rushed feeling (maybe COVID has something to do with it). The presentation is solid, though and I'm sure Dylan fans will be happy enough with that.