Surveying online remarks about Renaldo and Clara, the first (and, to date, last) fictional feature written and directed by legendary folk-rocker Bob Dylan, provides a sharp lesson in the cult of personality. Had this amorphous epic been created by some anonymous indie artiste, Renaldo and Clara would have been relegated to the slag heap of obscurity. Because it was made by Dylan, the picture is taken very seriously in some quarters, with advocates noting the influence of Cubist art as well as parallels to the 1945 art-house classic Les enfants du paradis. Whatever. Running nearly four hours in its original form and comprising a pretentious amalgam of concert footage, sloppy documentary snippets, and weakly rendered dramatic scenes, Renaldo and Clara is the epitome of self-indulgence. Dylan and his famous pals may have had fun shooting the picture, but the enjoyment does not extend to viewers, except during purely musical sequences.
To be fair, devoted fans who have spent decades parsing the mysteries of Dylan’s lyrics will undoubtedly find much to analyze here—Dylan appears as himself during performance scenes; plays a character named “Renaldo” in fictional bits while his real-life wife at the time, Sara Dylan, plays his love interest, “Clara”; and rock musician Ronnie Hawkins plays a character named “Bob Dylan” in vignettes with actress Ronee Blakeley as “Mrs. Dylan.” Also featured are the peculiar affectations of the Rolling Thunder Revue, the notorious Dylan tour that’s featured in concert scenes, so whenever Dylan sings tunes including “Tangled Up in Blue” and “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” he wears either masks or white face paint. Because, like, you know, man, the Dylan onstage is not the Dylan offstage, but even, like, you know, man, the Dylan offstage isn’t the real Dylan, you dig? To note that Dylan’s rumination on the complexities of public identity could have been articulated more succinctly is to offer a profound understatement. Except for those who are heavy into Dylan’s mythmaking, Renaldo and Clara will seem utterly interminable. Nonmusical scenes ramble on forever without any sense of purpose, Dylan and his musical friends deliver lifeless performances, and the real actors sprinkled through the piece—including Sam Shepard, credited with cowriting the script, and Harry Dean Stanton—struggle through uninteresting scenes that seem at least partially improvised. The only saving grace of the movie, unsurprisingly, is the power of music. Dylan is in great form, as are Joan Baez, Roger McGuinn, and others. (The less said about Beat poet Allen Ginsberg’s musical contributions, the better.)
Renaldo and Clara was brutalized by critics during its initial release, causing Dylan to largely withhold the film from subsequent public exhibition, with the exception of a re-release showcasing a two-hour edit that dumped most of the dramatic scenes. On some level, the movie is harmless in that it represents a boundlessly creative artist trying something new and asking his fans to come along for the ride. And yet on another level, one fears that Dylan envisioned himself as a naturally gifted filmmaker—because, let’s face it, he was asking for trouble by opening the movie with the song “When I Paint My Masterpiece.” Points for self-confidence!
Renaldo and Clara: LAME