Apart from making kajillion eye-wateringly brilliant meditations of crime, guilt and redemption, Martin Scorsese has an elegant sideline in music documentaries. Of the 16 full-length documentaries he has directed, five revolve around music.
The 79-year-old auteur’s first foray into the music documentary space was The Last Waltz (1978). Featuring concert and studio performances as well as interviews of the band members, the film documented the last concert by the rock group, The Band, on November 25, 1976. The Last Waltz, which established a template for other concert movies, and firmly seated Scorsese on the high throne of rockumentaries, was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the United States National Film Registry in 2019.
Over 25 years later, (the director was obviously busy with Raging Bull, Goodfellas, The Last Temptation of Christ and other such earth-moving films), came 2005’s No Direction Home: Bob Dylan. The 208-minute behemoth covers five years of the singer/songwriter’s life. And what five they were! Starting with his arrival in New York as a chubby-cheeked, curly-haired imp in 1961 and his successes, the film ends with his wound-up, whip-thin avatar and his motorcycle accident which caused Dylan to withdraw from public life and touring in 1966.
The film features interviews with Dylan’s associates, friends, lovers including Suze Rotolo (she is the woman walking arm-in-arm with Dylan on the cover of 1963’s The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan) and Joan Baez. Apart from rare archival footage provided by Dylan’s office, No Direction Home also featured the Nobel Laureate (it is such a kick to describe the iconoclastic singer thus!) at his most open and relaxed.
The 10-hour interview with his manager, Jeff Rosen, throws up gems such as Minnesota, where Dylan grew up being “too cold to rebel” and “you cannot be wise and in love at the same time” when talking about Joan Baez. No Direction Home was followed by Shine a Light in 2008.
There is a fearful symmetry to the concert film of the Rolling Stones’ 2006 Beacon Theatre performance as part of their A Bigger Bang Tour. No Direction Home is a line from Dylan’s confrontational 1965 single, ‘Like a Rolling Stone’. And there was that awkward performance of the single in Montpellier, France, in 1995. Dylan joined Stones frontman, Mick Jagger dressed in an identical purple shirt and mumbled the iconic lines — there is some controversy whether the troubadour made a rude gesture as he walked off the stage.
Shine a Light, a line from Stones’ eponymous song from the 1972 album Exile on Main St., was again a combination of archival and concert footage and saw Scorsese use digital cameras for the backstage sequences. It was then time to shine a light on the quiet Beatle with George Harrison: Living in the Material World (2011).
Scorsese worked on the film, which got six Emmy Nominations and won two (Outstanding Directing for Nonfiction Programming and Outstanding Nonfiction Special), alongside that twister, Shutter Island.
Telling Harrison’s story from his Liverpool days to Beatlemania and his immersion in Indian spirituality, Living in the Material World also featured interviews with friends and associates as well as Harrison’s widow, Olivia, (who was also the producer) and son, Dhani.
While all the aforementioned documentaries, were based on archival footage and interviews, nothing prepared us for Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese (2019). Ostensibly about Dylan’s 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue, which was about playing in smaller spaces, the documentary/mockumentary features real and fictional characters rolling around in psychotropic abandon.
Dylan is at his obscure and playful best. Did he name the tour after actual rolling thunder or after the Native American word for truth? Is ‘Just like a Woman’ dedicated to Sharon Stone? Did the Basic Instinct actor really iron Joan Baez’ shirt? And now that we are asking all these Dylan-esque questions, why are T.S Eliot and Einstein fighting in the captain’s tower? Why should we feel so afraid for Ophelia who wears an iron vest (too much water has thou…)?
The film is equal parts playful and profound even as Dylan’s friends including beat poet Allen Ginsberg as The Oracle of Delphi (yes), present the most extreme version of themselves. A perfect offering for the post-truth era, Rolling Thunder Revue, like the poet himself asks more questions than it answers.
Music has always been an integral part of Scorsese’s oeuvre. From using the Stones in various movies including three needle drops of ‘Gimme Shelter’ ( Goodfellas, Casino and The Departed) to Bernard Herrmann’s jingly jangly Taxi Driver theme.
With long-time collaborator, Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese also edited the three days of love, peace and music festival, Woodstock. The 1970 documentary won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. Incidentally, in 1987, Scorsese directed Michael Jackson in the music video of ‘Bad’ where Wesley Snipes made his film debut.
There is also the deliriously delightful mini-series, Vinyl, (2016) dealing with the music industry in 1970s. Created by Scorsese and Jagger, with Scorsese directing the pilot, Vinyl features Bobby Cannavale as a record executive and also stars Jack Quaid. Though HBO initially announced renewal of Vinyl for a second season, it was subsequently cancelled much to Scorsese’s and fans’ disappointment.
As we wait for the Grateful Dead biopic with Jonah Hill slated to play frontman Jerry Garcia, we could listen to the sound of silence being shattered to Derek and the Dominos’ delicate piano rendition of Eric Clapton’s ‘Layla’, even as bodies are being discovered in a meat truck—brrrr.