Martin Scorsese loves movies. That’s evident from his various foundations’ commitment to restoring and preserving the cinematic image. It’s also apparent from the movies he directs, each one loaded with references to masterworks that came before. One of his more famous quotations comes at the close of Goodfellas. There, Scorsese momentarily resurrects a character from the grave and grants him enough time to lower a pistol at the camera and pull the trigger six times—a reference to the 1903 western, The Great Train Robbery. Not that everyone watching the rags-to-riches-to-recluse gangster picture in 1990 would have picked up on the homage. But if you did, then it felt like the movie was communicating on a secret broadcast.
The same could be said of Rolling Thunder Revue, a hybrid of Scorsese’s cinematic passions: Restoration, creation, and quotation. This time around, Scorsese doesn’t wait ’til the end to drop a silent film reference; he ticks the box upfront with Georges Méliès’ 1896 short, The Vanishing Lady. Méliès, playing a magician, stands on a makeshift stage, presents an ordinary chair to the camera, twirls it with showmanship, and places it just so. His future wife, Jeanne d’Alcy, sits on the chair. Méliès covers her and the chair with a blanket, whips the blanket off, and voilà! Only the chair remains, which Méliès picks up and twirls in front of the camera again. Titles. Then, Méliès covers the empty chair with the blanket once more, snaps it off, and brings d’Alcy back. Another title: “Conjuring the Rolling Thunder Revue.” A hyphen bisects ‘revue’ into ‘re-vue.’ More titles, then, archival footage from the American bicentennial celebration: Boats on the water, the Statue of Liberty in the distance, people on the streets. The camera tilts up from street level to gaze at the recently built World Trade Center. A man dressed as Uncle Sam attracts a crowd by reciting the Star Spangle Banner in double time. In his hand, he clutches several Confederate flags.
Where the hell are we?
As the title states, we are in a Bob Dylan story by Martin Scorsese. The year is 1975 and
the U.S. was at a crossroads. The Vietnam War was over, and Americans were more disillusioned than ever. Big cities out east, like New York and Washington D.C., prepped for the Bicentennial, but Small Town, U.S.A., seemed not to notice. Or care. “It’s like America lost its conviction for anything,” Bob Dylan says in Rolling Thunder Revue, directed by Martin Scorsese and now available from The Criterion Collection.Boulder Weekly Vol. 28, No. 23, “America at a crossroads and Bob Dylan on tour.”
Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese USA 2019; The Criterion Collection; Blu-ray; 142 minutes; 1.85:1. Extras: new interviews with director Martin Scorsese, editor David Tedeschi, and writer Larry “Ratso” Sloman; restored footage of never-before-seen Rolling Thunder Revue performances of “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here with You” and “Romance in Durango”, and of a never-before-seen cut of “Tangled Up in Blue”; trailer; essay by novelist Dana Spiotta and writing from the Rolling Thunder Revue tour by author Sam Shepard and poets Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman.