In 2016, Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for literature. He’s always counted as one of my favorite artists. Dylan’s buried film, Renaldo and Clara still remains unreleased. The film hit theaters at the same time as Martin Scorsese’s documentary about The Band called The Last Waltz, in which Dylan made an appearance. I obtained a bootleg copy of Renaldo and Clara in a video store in Atlanta’s Little Five Points during 1997. I wrote this article for Hittin’ The Note the following year. One can only hope this buried classic will see the light of day.
“I’ve been double-crossed for the very last time,
And now I’m finally free.”
In an age of DVD, reissued classics emerge every so often. For those aficionados seeking obscure music cinema, Bob Dylan’s Renaldo & Clara, a film he wrote, directed, and produced, remains an unreleased prize. Renaldo & Clara contains threads of traditional southern music throughout this film. Dylan’s cinematic epic, originally released in theatres in 1978, unfortunately exists only as a rare bootleg in the mainstream world of rock and roll films.
Renaldo & Clara remains Bob Dylan’s classic subterranean film. Dylan intended the four-hour movie to be twice as long, considering the filming process for Renaldo & Clara began with Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue tour in 1975, and continued for nearly two years. This enigmatic motion picture features an all-star cast, including Ronnie Hawkins, Harry Dean Stanton, Roger McGuinn, Allen Ginsberg, Sam Shepard, Ronee Blakley, David Blue, Sara Dylan, Joan Baez, Arlo Guthrie, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Bobby Neuwirth, Scarlet Rivera, Mel Howard, Rob Stoner, T-Bone Burnett, Helena Kallianiotes, Mick Ronson, Steven Soles, Luther Rix, and David Mansfield. It’s a wonder such an obscure gem remains buried in a vault.
Renaldo & Clara operates deeps beneath the surface compared to other films involving Dylan, such as Don’t Look Back, Eat the Document, The Concert for Bangladesh, Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, and the disastrous Hearts of Fire. The film’s narrative weaves a mysterious musical and visual chronicle of Dylan’s traveling medicine show during a time when America celebrated its bicentennial anniversary. Dylan biographer Robert Shelton wrote about the movie: “The finished film, running nearly four hours, became a candidate for commercial suicide. It was a complex, often non-communicative film that was triumph musically but a dramatic failure.”
In 1978, Renaldo & Clara confused critics, and most gave the film low marks. Somewhat disturbed by the criticism, Dylan said, “Reading the reviews of the movie, I sensed a feeling of them wanting to crush things. Those reviews weren’t about the movie. They were just an excuse to get at me for one reason or another. I was disappointed that the critics couldn’t get beyond the superficial elements. They thought the movie was all about Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Sara Dylan…and it wasn’t.”
In the movie’s opening concert footage, Dylan wears a clear rubber mask while leading the Rolling Thunder Revue through a swirling version of “When I Paint My Masterpiece.” This masked stage appearance seems strange, even for Dylan. Filmed in an atmosphere of improvisation, the movie alternates between scenes of intense live performances and abstruse vignettes providing an interesting collection of images.
Perhaps while playing “Alias” in Sam Peckinpah’s great 1973 western Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, Dylan (who wrote the film’s soundtrack) absorbed certain cinematic techniques from the legendary maverick filmmaker. Some of the grainy film’s best shots capture austere landscapes, railroads, churches, graveyards, and rivers, accompanied by an undeniable soundtrack. An early scene filmed from a train window reveals a desolate winter landscape covered with snow at sunset, echoed by a lonesome fiddle and piano version of Dylan singing Hank Williams’ “Kaw-liga.”
Read the rest of the essay in Insured Beyond The Grave Vol. 2.