The filmmaker’s best known for gangster sagas and epic tales, but his docs are among his best work. And a new one on Bob Dylan’s ‘Rolling Thunder Revue’ has the hallmarks of his best and most mischievous work.
11 June 2019 | | The Ringer
the 50-plus years since Who’s That Knocking at My Door, we’ve gotten a good idea of what to expect from a Martin Scorsese picture. An active camera. A soundtrack charged with killer needle drops or an eclectic score. Characters in a state of mortal and spiritual torment. Entire worlds brought to life in sumptuous detail. And when it all comes together, as it nearly always does, you get these unforgettable movie moments: That slo-mo dolly-in on Johnny Boy in Mean Streets as he strolls into a bar to “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”; the one-take tour through the Copacabana to “Then He Kissed Me” in GoodFellas; Jake LaMotta shadow-boxing in the ring to “Cavalleria Rusticana Intermezzo” during the opening credits of Raging Bull, prowling the lonely space he’ll be caged in forever.
And those are the obvious ones. Cinephiles can pile on dozens of personal favorites after that: the overhead crane shot of slain monks in Kundun, the reflected sunlight that leads Newland Archer to imagine a different destiny for himself at the end of The Age of Innocence, the tracking shot away from Travis Bickle as he’s rejected one last, painful time in Taxi Driver, etc. The examples are endless. And the one unifying impression is that Scorsese has brought his full imagination to bear on every shot, and that his longtime editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, has cut them together with the pop of Tom Cruise’s “sledgehammer” breaks in The Color of Money. There’s a dynamism and intentionality that’s made him perhaps the greatest living American filmmaker.
He also makes documentaries.
Are those Martin Scorsese pictures, too? With very few exceptions—one of them from The Ringer’s Sean Fennessey—ranked lists of the best Scorsese films usually include only two documentaries, The Last Waltz and Shine a Light, two studio-produced concert films about the Band and the Rolling Stones, respectively. And the reason for that, beyond the higher stakes of Hollywood financing and distribution, is Scorsese seems to have the same creative investment in them as he does in his other features. The choreography is mapped out, song by song, for maximum effect, with Scorsese and a battery of top-flight cinematographers orchestrating each camera move to maximum effect. In one funny behind-the-scenes bit in Shine a Light, the Stones prank Scorsese by withholding the final setlist until the last possible moment, forcing him to arrange his shot list in piles from “definite” to “unlikely.”
But forgetting Scorsese’s other documentaries leaves about a dozen more films out in the cold, including extraordinarily accomplished ones like Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese, which premieres in theaters and on Netflix this week. Granted, there’s an argument to be made for this categorical neglect. There are certain master filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick or Quentin Tarantino who curate their careers tightly, and each new film is a years-in-the-making event. Scorsese’s adventures more closely resemble someone like Jonathan Demme, whose Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense is in the pantheon with The Last Waltz as the best of their kind, but whose nonfiction sojourns into Haiti (The Agronomist) or Jimmy Carter’s book tour (Man From Plains) or his own family (Cousin Bobby) were regarded as side projects, if they were regarded at all. They weren’t Melvin and Howard or Something Wild or The Silence of the Lambs.
In Scorsese’s case, it’s not necessarily unjust to file his nonfiction films a little differently—if it’s even worth caring about such filing systems at all. Several of his documentaries, including the under-an-hour portraiture of Italianamericanand American Boy and the Fran Lebowitz profile piece Public Speaking, find Scorsese simply bringing himself and a camera into a conversation. (Or in American Boy, into a hot tub.) Others lean heavily on archival footage, like his two Dylan docs, Rolling Thunder Revue and No Direction Home, his George Harrison career-spanner George Harrison: Living in the Material World, or his many professorial tours through the cinema that influenced him, like A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies, My Voyage to Italy, or A Letter to Elia. His docs are not lacking in substance or imagination, but they’re not exactly pushing the formal boundaries, either.
Yet Scorsese is a champion of personal filmmaking, and in that respect, his documentaries are full of curiosity and passion, and a fascinating window into the things he cares about most deeply. He’s a collector of stories. He’s a fan and archivist. He’s a thinker and political radical. And in its best instances, his nonfiction accesses his sensibility more directly than any fiction feature could—how he thinks about himself as a commercial artist, what excites him as a connoisseur of popular entertainment, and the specific works that delivered an asthmatic boy from a tiny apartment on Elizabeth Street in New York to Hollywood’s upper echelon. In a given year, he may have expended less energy on Public Speaking than Shutter Island or on George Harrison: Living in the Material World than Hugo or on Rolling Thunder Revue than his upcoming Netflix crime epic The Irishman, due in December. But the effort is meaningful all the same.
The Story Collector
Italianamerican (1974), American Boy: A Profile of Steven Prince (1978), Public Speaking (2010), The 50 Year Argument (2014)
Among the many charms of Italianamerican, Scorsese’s 49-minute conversation with his parents, Catherine and Charles, is the closing credits, which detail the recipe for his mother’s spaghetti sauce. Throughout the film, as Scorsese listens to stories about the family’s journey from Italy to the tenements and immigrant neighborhoods of New York City, Catherine will drift back to the kitchen and tend to the sauce, and then find her place alongside her husband in the same modest apartment where Martin grew up on Elizabeth Street. Fans of Scorsese’s work know his parents well, especially Catherine, unforgettable as the disembodied voice of Rupert Pupkin’s mother in The King of Comedy, pleading with him to “lower it,” as he practices monologues in the basement, and as Tommy DeVito’s mom in Goodfellas, who gives him a butcher knife to take care of the deer “hoof” caught in the car grille outside. Scorsese couldn’t have guessed they’d live another 20 years after Italianamerican, but he has an instinct to record them for posterity—not just these precious family stories, which are the stories of so many immigrants, but the way they interact with each other and with him. It’s a rare thing, a home movie with universal appeal.