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Truth and Legends: The Extraordinary Documentaries of Martin Scorsese

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.

Ringer illustration

In 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 Italianamerican and 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.

The aesthetics of these story-collecting documentaries are simple and deferential, with Scorsese often bringing himself into the frame and interacting with his subjects, to draw out anecdotes as if they were at a bar or sitting around the dinner table. American Boy places him on a couch across from Steven Prince, who’d had a scintillating bit part in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver as “Easy Andy,” the black-market salesman who sells weapons to Travis Bickle but can’t interest him in recreational pharmaceuticals. Prince’s harrowing stories of drug addiction and his various stints as a Neil Diamond roadie and a gas-station attendant are so wild they sound like urban legends, and Tarantino was sufficiently inspired to use two scenes from American Boy for his own movies: Chris Penn and Michael Madsen wordlessly greeting each other with a wrestling match in Reservoir Dogs and the shot of adrenaline to the heart that revives an overdosing woman in Pulp Fiction.

Public Speaking and The 50 Year Argument, each produced for HBO’s documentary line, bring in the fine cinematographer Ellen Kuras for a cleaner look, but they’re both about Scorsese recognizing New York institutions while they’re still running hot. Scorsese doesn’t need to do anything with Fran Lebowitz, the endlessly opinionated author and public wit, other than turn up for drinks at The Waverly Inn and bellow infectiously at Lebowitz’s jibes. Public Speaking plugs in footage of Lebowitz on stage and on the go, but it’s mostly just a forum for the one New Yorker who talks faster than Scorsese to sound off on race and gender disparities, her judgmental nature, and what happened when James Thurber got put on a postage stamp.

Codirected by David Tedeschi, the editor on his past few documentaries, The 50 Year Argument is a natural companion to Public Speaking, both about the virtues of risk-taking and provocation. Scorsese’s tribute to The New York Review of Books and its longtime editor, Robert Silvers, sees the publication as an intellectual movement, given to questioning state power and conventional wisdom on issues like Selma, Vietnam, and gun control, and allowing important debates to spill out onto its pages. Silvers would die shortly after the film’s release, but continuity of the magazine’s principles, in the face of dramatic changes in the media business, tracks with Scorsese’s own 50-year career. They have in common that mix of risk-taking and rigor, a willingness to bust open the conversation while minding the tiniest editorial detail.

The Fan

The Last Waltz (1978), Shine a Light (2008), George Harrison: Living in the Material World (2011)

These films all have the same kind of end-of-an-era urgency that inspired The Last Waltz, which turns the final concert of the Band into a raucous, all-star celebration of a generation of rock and folk giants. Scorsese’s connection to the music scene went all the way back to Woodstock, which he’d coedited, and the Band’s frontman, Robbie Robertson, recruited him to film the show on the basis of Mean Streets, which had used songs so dynamically. Because the entire show and its special guests—including Dylan, Eric Clapton, Neil Diamond, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Van Morrison, and many others—had to be stage-managed so carefully, it was the perfect opportunity for a planner like Scorsese to redefine what a concert film could be. Marshaling some of the best cinematographers in the world as camera operators—Michael Chapman (Taxi Driver), Vilmos Zsigmond (Close Encounters of the Third Kind), and future Oscar winner John Toll (Braveheart) among them—Scorsese not only storyboarded the entire concert, but set up a soundstage at MGM for additional performances, including a stunning version of “The Weight” with the Staple Singers.

Though some of the backstage interview footage in The Last Waltz drifts into the rock-god self-mythologizing that would inspire This Is Spinal Tap, Scorsese redefined the notion of what a concert film could be. The focus on the stage, without cutaways to the audience, allows for an unmediated you-are-there experience, but Scorsese aims for something deeper than that. The cuts, close-ups, and camera moves, all timed on rhythm, put the filmmaking on par with the musicianship, and have an impact that even sitting in the front row couldn’t. The cameos are all superb, especially Dylan’s three-song run to close the show, but when the entire cast of characters gets on stage for “I Shall Be Released,” it’s a synthesizing, galvanizing moment for ’70s music, a piece of meticulously fussed-over history in the making.

After putting the Rolling Stones in such heavy rotation on his soundtracks, Scorsese returned the favor with Shine a Light, which takes his Last Waltz planning to another level, with stages explicitly designed to accommodate the type of camerawork he wanted to do. At best, the film is a perfectly fine way to experience a late-period Stones arena show at a fraction of the cost, with the bonus of special appearances by Jack White, Christina Aguilera, and an electrifying Buddy Guy. Yet there’s a canned, hermetic quality to Shine a Light that takes away all the spontaneity and passion associated with a good rock show, much less the uniqueness of an event like the Band’s final concert. There’s a gulf between the culmination of a rock era and a benefit for the Clinton Foundation, and Scorsese’s camera pyrotechnics aren’t enough to bridge it.

Of his documentary profile subjects, George Harrison is somehow more elusive than Dylan, who’s made a career out of slipping in and out of characters, and refusing to let his critics or his fans pin him down. As the third wheel to the Lennon-McCartney songwriting bloc, Harrison was usually good for one or two songs per Beatles album, from the gentle Abbey Road duo of “Something” and “Here Comes the Sun” to more far afield efforts like the sitar-based “Within You Without You” and the epic sprawl of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” For Scorsese, though, it’s Harrison’s life as a spiritual seeker that draws the most personal interest, rooted in the discovery that money and fame were not going to slake that deeper thirst. George Harrison: Living in the Material World works as a conventional Beatles documentary from another angle—this being Scorsese, every living witness offers themselves as a talking head—but the film really takes off once Harrison goes solo and reveals a fullness of vision that the band had stifled. Stories about the making of his hit triple album All Things Must Pass make a good argument for his artistic genius, but Scorsese stays attuned to Harrison’s contradictory nature. He was a peaceful man devoted to some higher calling; he was also the materialist who wrote “Taxman.”

The Artist

A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies (1995), My Voyage to Italy (1999), No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (2005), A Letter to Elia (2010), Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese (2019)

Though his George Harrison doc is a comprehensive, birth-to-death biography, Scorsese’s impulse is to emphasize the parts of a story that mean the most to him and discard the rest. And length doesn’t matter: A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies (225 minutes), My Voyage to Italy (246), No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (208), and Rolling Thunder Revue (142) are only partial histories, narrowed to the themes and images that most interest Scorsese as an artist. “This is like an imaginary museum,” Scorsese says in A Personal Journey, “and we can’t enter every room because we just don’t have the time.” He’s there to give audiences the best lecture they’ve ever witnessed, but they’ll only come away understanding cinema as he sees it, not as the pocket history they might expect over four hours.

A Personal Journey, My Voyage to Italy, and Letter to Elia, his shorter ode to Elia Kazan, could be watched together in installments, like supplements to an informal film education. There’s nothing dry or high-handed in Scorsese’s enthusiasm for these films, in part because the clips themselves are so charged with emotion and stylistic brio. Scorsese starts A Personal Journey with memories of seeing Duel in the Sun, a Technicolor Western that was critically reviled at the time, but ripe with a sinfulness that stayed with him. Seeing these documentaries is the best possible way to understand how Scorsese’s sensibility developed—his attraction to the high drama and emotional vividness of American genre films by directors like Sam Fuller, Anthony Mann, and Vincente Minnelli; the street realism and operatic grandeur of Italian cinema from mid-’40s to the early ’60s, and masters like Vittorio De Sica, Roberto Rossellini, Luchino Visconti, and Federico Fellini; and the bedrock intensity of Elia Kazan.

Scorsese’s comprehensive knowledge of film history is beyond dispute, but what makes these documentaries special is how much they’re connected to his memories and how much they’re attuned to the way movies make him feel. When he talks about Kazan’s On the Waterfront in Letter to Elia, it’s not a dry disquisition on social realism and Method acting, but a still-vivid reverie on the power of seeing your life on screen. “It was the faces, the bodies, and the way they moved,” he narrates. “The voices and the way they sounded. They were like the people I saw every day. … I saw the same mixture of toughness and tenderness. It was as if the world that I came from, the world that I knew, mattered. As if the people I knew mattered, whatever their flaws were.”

There’s no overlap between Scorsese’s Bob Dylan documentaries: No Direction Home covers Dylan’s career in the lead-up to his infamous Newport Folk Festival set in 1965, when he set down his acoustic guitar and went electric, and Rolling Thunder Revue covers his extraordinary 57-show road show through smaller cities and venues in 1975 and 1976. But the central question of each is the same: How do you manage the conflict between personal expression and commercial expectations? That’s the theme of Scorsese’s career, as it would be for any director who’s survived and thrived in a studio system that has changed so dramatically over the past century. In Dylan, Scorsese recognizes the chameleonic genius of an artist who’s constantly reinventing himself and defying what’s expected of him, but who stays in the picture.

No Direction Home keeps circling back to the Newport ’65 show as an act of defiance—not to thumb his nose at the “Judas” crowd that booed through the set, but to reject the idea that he needed to stay in his countercultural box. A label like “the voice of a generation” was not self-applied, and his commitment to continuing Woody Guthrie’s tradition of acoustic protest songs lasted for only as long as he felt comfortable wearing that particular skin. Dylan made tormenting music journalists into a sport—see Don’t Look Back—but he plays it straight with Scorsese, who understands what it’s like to pursue your ambitions in the face of those who have a narrow idea of what you should do.

In the new Rolling Thunder Revue, Scorsese leans again into the “This film should be played loud!” force of The Last Waltz and the Newport ’65 show, but in between the treasure trove of live footage collected on the tour, he also engages in a bit of Dylan-style prankishness. Some of the talking heads and anecdotes in the film are absolute nonsense, like testimony from a pissy Dutch filmmaker or Representative Jack Tanner (Michael Murphy), the fake politician from Robert Altman’s mockumentary Tanner ’88. This is a “Bob Dylan Story,” after all, so it’s not all to be taken at face value, which may be Scorsese’s way of paying homage to Renaldo and Clara, the misbegotten (and impossible-to-find) four-hour film that Dylan constructed around material from this tour.

The label “documentary” doesn’t comfortably apply to Rolling Thunder Revue, which doesn’t bother to demarcate the line between fact and fiction, but there’s truth in the rambling roadshow that Dylan leads through 2,000- to 3,000-seat auditoriums across America. For an act of Dylan’s stature to downsize his venues while welcoming more and more guest performers and musicians to the stage is an insane, money-hemorrhaging undertaking—and that’s before the added strangeness of conceiving it as part old-timey medicine show and part homage to the 1945 French classic Children of Paradise.

Forty years removed from the tour, Dylan frequently laughs about the real and fake incidents from a tour he only hazily remembers, and Scorsese the story collector, the fan, and the artist laughs along with him. He knows his John Ford well enough to recall the famous line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that Italianamerican was in black and white.

Scott Tobias is a freelance film and television writer from Chicago. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR, Vulture, Variety, and other publications.