Exploring ‘Renaldo and Clara’, the four-hour feature film directed by Bob Dylan
“All the truth in the world adds up to one big lie.” – Bob Dylan
One of the greatest singer-songwriters of all time, the first musician to win the Nobel Prize for literature, a legendary member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Bob Dylan is known around the world for his all-encompassing influence and his pioneering achievements in his field. However, it is a little known fact that the musician has two films under his directorial belt as well. The first is Eat the Document, a 1972 documentary of Dylan’s 1966 tour of the United Kingdom and Ireland with the Hawks, and the second one is the subject of this article and the more interesting of the two from a purely cinematic perspective.
Renaldo and Clara is a 235-minute long film that combines three different genres: concert footage, documentary interviews, and dramatic fictional vignettes based on Bob Dylan’s song lyrics and his life. Inspired by the boldness of the French New Wave and the counter-culture irreverence of the Beat Generation, it was filmed in the fall of 1975 prior to and during Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue tour.
The film featured performances and appearances from Dylan himself (he played Renaldo) and the likes of Joan Baez, Allen Ginsberg, Sara Dylan and Harry Dean Stanton, among others. The thematic elements and the narrative structure of Renaldo and Clara are influenced by Marcel Carné’s 1945 epic Children of Paradise. It incorporates the same recurring motifs, comparable running times and even adopts a similar Cubist approach, exploring personal identities through the perspectives of different lovers.
In a 1978 interview with Rolling Stone, Dylan explained, “It isn’t just about bus stations and cabarets and stage music and identity — those are elements of it. But it is mostly about identity — about everybody’s identity. More important, it’s about Renaldo’s identity, so we superimpose our own vision on Renaldo: it’s his vision and it’s his dream.
“You know what the film is about? It begins with music — you see a guy in a mask [Bob Dylan], you can see through the mask he’s wearing, and he’s singing “When I Paint My Masterpiece.” So right away you know there’s an involvement with music. Music is confronting you.”
The film largely received negative reviews and its limited release in theatres in major U.S. cities was stopped. Rolling Stone dismissed it by stating, “This is meant to work at the level of Freud, but it is a lot closer to fraud.” Despite all its shortcomings, it is still interesting to see how one of the greatest artists of all time lent his vision to the cinematic medium.