True confession: I’ve never been one of Bob Dylan’s greatest fans.
There, I said it. Oh sure, I had a brief infatuation with Highway 61 Revisited back in the day, and I’d be the first to suggest that The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll is a strong contender for ‘greatest protest song ever written.’ But something in Dylan’s mannered drawling voice made me decide that I preferred his songs sung by other artists. Now along comes this unwieldily titled concert movie, and I find myself having to re-evaluate my position. Rolling Thunder portrays an artist at the very peak of his powers, casually throwing out solid-gold belters as though by some kind of involuntary reflex.
Of course, there’s nothing new about a lot of this footage. It’s been mostly salvaged from Dylan’s own attempt to film his 1975/6 tour under the title Renaldo and Clara, which died a quiet death at the box office more than forty years ago. And this isn’t exactly a straight concert film either, featuring – as it does – some fictional elements. There’s Martin Von Haselerg as ‘The Filmmaker,’ claiming to be the film’s true author. There’s Sharon Stone, telling us that she was taken on as a wardrobe assistant on the tour at the age of eighteen (she wasn’t). And there’s Michael Murphy as ‘The Politician,’ making comments about the bicentenary that was taking place as Dylan and his motley crew strutted their stuff around a series of intimate venues across America.
But there’s plenty here to enjoy, not least a pugnacious rendition of Hattie Carroll with Dylan contemptuously spitting out the lyrics at the crowd; the scene where Joan Baez and Dylan reveal that the two of them really should have married each other, instead of other people; and, of special interest to me, the sequence where a radiant Joni Mitchell knocks out an early draft of Coyote, while Dylan and Roger McGuinn meekly accompany her on guitars. (This song, of course, is about her brief affair with playwright Sam Shepard, who also appears in the film.)
With its hefty running time, this might not have found an audience at the cinema, so Netflix seems the ideal home for it. Dylan aficionados will have a field day – and those who, like me, have been sitting on the fence concerning Mr Zimmerman, may have something of an epiphany.