Dylanologists rejoice! I’ve heard from a semi-reliable source that Renaldo and Clara, a much-discussed and little-seen 1978 epic film by Bob Dylan, will soon be finally released on DVD.
This astounding, rich and often frustrating movie represented one of the most dramatic episodes in Bob Dylan’s long career. An ambitious, intentionally difficult postmodern art film, Renaldo and Clara was panned by critics for being pretentious, incomprehensible and painfully long (all of these things are true). Released in the early years of the punk-rock/new-wave era, the film’s windy self-indulgence revealed Dylan as completely out of step with his times. Stung by the criticism, Dylan has refused to release the film ever since. It has not shown in theatres since the 1970s, and has never been officially released on VHS or DVD.
But this movie is a masterpiece in spite of its faults, or perhaps because of them. Conceived by Dylan as an early experiment in cinema verite (a genre now typically known as “reality tv”), Renaldo and Clara tells a single story but deliberately confuses the identities of all the characters, several of which are played by Dylan, his former lover Joan Baez or his then-wife Sara Dylan. Bob Neuwirth, T. Bone Burnette, Ronee Blakely, Mick Ronson, Scarlet Rivera, Ronnie Hawkins, Rob Stoner and countless other friends come along for the ride. Various improvised or real-life scenes introduce themes of love, politics and the meaning of America, and by the end none of the themes are easily resolved. The film quality is erratic, the direction is often unclear, and the acting is often clumsy (guitarist Mick Ronson is particularly wooden, and Dylan is no Brando himself)
However, stirring scenes and images emerge. Most importantly, the narrative scenes are intercut with stunning complete performances of great songs like Tangled Up In Blue, It Ain’t Me Babe, Never Let Me Go, When I Paint My Masterpiece and One More Cup Of Coffee. The film features Dylan in a peak moment of live performance with the Rolling Thunder Revue (the largest and, in my opinion, most exciting band he ever played with).
The film’s literary credentials are through the roof. It’s co-written by Sam Shepard, includes a powerful poetry performance by Anne Waldman, and features many beguiling scenes with Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky, who light up the screen whenever they appear. This movie is also the only close glimpse curious Dylan fans will ever get of Sara Dylan, the songwriter’s greatest muse (Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands) and the mother of his older children.
I’ve seen Renaldo and Clara several times, but always on either a fuzzy bootleg VHS recording or, more recently, in broken segments on YouTube. In either case, the viewing experience is not great (it pretty much looks like the image at the top of this page, which show Sara and Bob as Clara and Renaldo). I’m looking forward to seeing it in high quality video for the first time, and hearing the killer live music in high quality audio. Maybe this time I’ll even be able to understand more of the story.
It’s not clear whether Dylan has refused to release this film since the 1970s only to spite the critics or for other reasons. The crash-landing of Renaldo and Clara coincided with Dylan and Sara’s divorce, after which the always enigmatic folk-rocker released a brilliant, Kafkaesque album called Street-Legal, then disappeared for several months and reemerged as a born-again Christian. Renaldo and Clara, though an artistic failure in several ways, captures the heat of an artist in a creative frenzy. It probably also captures something about the 1970s as a whole.
My old friends at the once-thriving rec.music.dylan Usenet newsgroup may also remember that I once posted an extensive synopsis of the film there (this was one of the very first things I wrote online). Through maintaining this piece over the years, I’ve been made aware of how many hard-core or amateur Dylanologists around the world have been eagerly awaiting this film. Sean Wilentz’s recent book Bob Dylan in America has also helped to pique interest (Wilentz reveals, among other things, that the film was almost certainly inspired by a French film called Children of Paradise, directed by Marcel Carne).
I’m really glad that Bob Dylan’s creative team has decided to give this undeniably important movie its proper official release, though I haven’t yet heard word when it will happen.