Bob Dylan's 1978 film Renaldo and Clara is one of the great white whales of Rock 'n' Roll Cinema, a sprawling 4 hour vanity project, part fictionalized drama, part concert film made during the early leg of Dylan's '75/76 Rolling Thunder Revue tour. When the film was released in January 1978, it was savaged by critics for its seemingly incoherent story, and deliberately obscure meaning. The film is undeniably self-indulgent, and despite its rather shaky reputation, Renaldo and Clara remains an oddly compelling and enjoyable film, and besides some terrific music, where else would you see Harry Dean Stanton scoring with Joan Baez and a semi-naked Allen Ginsberg flirting with a scantily dressed whore?
The plot of Renaldo and Clara resists easy interpretation. Dylan himself explained rather tortuously to Playboy: "It's the essence of man being alienated from himself and how in order to free himself, to be reborn, he has to go outside himself" In plainer terms, the film is Dylan's self-examination of his love-life and his troubled relationships with women. At the heart of the film are the characters of rock musician Renaldo and his lover Clara, played by Dylan and his wife Sara. Renaldo and Clara both have complicated pasts - Sara has left her emotionally withdrawn husband (played by Sam Shepard) while a former lover of Renaldo's, known simply as the Woman in White (Joan Baez) is back on the scene and Renaldo has to make a decision...
Renaldo and Clara is best likened with the lyric experimentation of Tangled Up In Blue - this is a film dense with symbolism, obscure references, shifting time lines and unexpected tangents. Dylan cast much of the extended Rolling Thunder band in the film, like Nashville star Ronee Blakely, former Spider from Mars guitarist Mick Ronson, Roger McGuinn and David Mansfield (who would later turn up as a rollerskating violin player in Heaven's Gate). Harry Dean Stanton appears in two or three scenes (as a jail breaker who trades a horse for Renaldo's lover), and Allen Ginsberg, in a significant role (listed on the credits as the Father), gets to read his poetry, sing songs and mantras, and at one point visits the grave of Jack Kerouac accompanied by Dylan. Most extraordinary is that Joan Baez was chosen to play Renaldo's former lover, the Woman In White, considering Baez was Dylan's former lover. Dylan and Baez split some ten years before the Rolling Thunder tour, but the chemistry between both of them in the film is still palpable - at one point Baez playfully asks Dylan "What do you think it would have been like if got married?" Ironically, by the time Renaldo and Clara was released Dylan and Sara's marriage was over apparently due to Dylan's womanizing.
"We never actually wrote a script" remembered playwright Sam Shepard whom Dylan hired to write the film. Shepard is credited with "additional dialogue" but much of the film feels loose and improvised, like a sequence at a Native American reservation (where guitarist Bob Neuwirth antagonizes one of the Indians, before Dylan arrives messiah-like). Elsewhere, there's some footage of boxer Hurricane Ruben Carter at a press conference speaking about his incarceration (followed by Dylan leaning on some record executives to release his Hurricane single), while other sequences suggest that the trio of credited cameraman simply showed up to record events as they happened, like two evangelists preaching a fire n' brimstone sermon outside the New York Stock Exchange. There's some genuinely funny stuff in the film as well, like a scene where Mick Ronson playing a bouncer refuses entry to rockabilly musician Ronnie Hawkins (playing a character called Bob Dylan), a disgruntled Hawkins responding to Ronson's thick Hull accent, "I don't care anything about the Queen, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, or David Boowie (sic) or his lead guitar figure, or anybody else". In another scene Allen Ginsberg reads aloud his famous poem Kaddish (which includes the line "a long black beard around the vagina"), to some unimpressed old aged pensioners.
Dylan shot over 100 hours of footage throughout the filming of the Rolling Thunder Revue and felt Renaldo and Clara's four-hour cut was itself a compromise, as he later explained: "I knew it was not going to be a short movie because we couldn't tell that story in an hour. Originally I couldn't see how we could do it under seven or eight hours." The final draft of the film features live footage of nine original Dylan songs, as well as songs from Joan Baez (singing Diamonds and Rust), Ronee Blakely (Need a New Sun Rising Every Morning), and a strangely androgynous Roger McGuinn singing Knockin' on Heaven's Door, Chestnut Mare (one of the Byrds' best songs), and a lively instrumental jam of Eight Miles High. Dylan himself appears in face paint (and an unnerving transparent mask seen in the opening number) and in contrast to his subdued, aloof turn as Renaldo, on stage he's in terrific form, with excellent renditions of When I Paint My Masterpiece, Isis and a rollicking John Lee Hooker-sounding version of A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall. Dylan's commitment to the film was such that he initially refused to be filmed for The Last Waltz, which was to be released around the same time as Renaldo and Clara, but Dylan relented and allowed the cameras to roll on two of the four songs he performed. Incidentally, the live footage violates an age-old convention of concert films by never cutting away to the audience, the cameras remaining firmly locked on Dylan and his band.
After the disastrous reception of Renaldo and Clara, Dylan tried to rescue the film by reshaping it into a two hour feature but still the film was greeted with jeers, even from the Dylan faithful. Dylan withdrew the film from public and still to this day has never enjoyed a home video release. Luckily, Channel 4 in the UK once screened the four hour cut (believed to be from the mid 80's) and was taped to VHS (with the adverts cut out). This seems to be where all bootlegs of Renaldo and Clara stem from but fortunately, the film looks very decent, if a little grungy. Every now and then, there is an announcement that the film is being prepared for DVD but at the time of writing, the film still remains elusive.