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This epic is a mass amalgamation of three separate film-types that is, contrary to popular opinion, coherent and a unified whole. Bob Dylan is shown in concert, often masked, during the Rolling Thunder Revue. The film also features documentary footage, including Ruben "Hurricane" Carter's struggle against the forces that have imprisoned him. The third element is fictional "role-playing" footage with Bob Dylan in the guise of guitar-strumming Renaldo and his wife Sara as his companion Clara. Ronnie Hawkins takes on the role of Bob Dylan in these sequences. The film includes footage of a visit to the grave of Jack Kerouac, an Allen Ginsberg poetry reading and various friends and acquaintances, namely David Blue (playing pinball by a swimming pool), discussing experiences on the road. Written by
When the film was originally released, its screenings were extremely limited. The film received very many condemning reviews and many theaters refused the screenings. The film was cut from its original four-hour length to a two-hour length, and what was left was mostly concert footage. This version was shown in more theaters than the original director's cut. The original four-hour cut would appear on European television some time later, on Channel 4. See more »
The opening credits end with a minute-long title card reading "A Film by BOB DYLAN" directed after he is credited as writer and director. The closing credits are divided in three sections, separated by wide time gaps, played over a different artist performing. See more »
Bob Dylan has never made it as an actor. Nothing proves this better than his role as Billy Parker in "Hearts of Fire" (1987). Even his minor role as "Alias" in Sam Peckinpah's "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid" (1973) was lackluster. The song he wrote for the film, "Knockin' On Heaven's Door," however, has survived as an anthem.
But "Renaldo & Clara" is a very different sort of film. It runs nearly 4 hours and chronicles a concert tour, "The Rolling Thunder Revue." It is filled with interesting people, good music and impromptu dialogue. Even with so much situational dialogue, Dylan shared writing credits with the distinguished playwright Sam Shepard. Perhaps the thing that makes it such a valuable cinematic document is that it bridges the gap in American cultural history between the "Beat Generation" and the emerging post-modern movement.
Critics panned the film at the time of its release, probably because they did not understand that were standing at the convergence of two great social tides. What they saw as an overly long movie without the benefit of tight plotting was really the melding of "beat" stream-of-consciousness and Dylan's own unique post-modern artistic sensibilities. Critics could only compare it to some lengthy epic from India because they had no other frame of reference at the time.
In the film, the troupe re-enacts an old "true-life love triangle" (Joan Baez and Sara Dylan) and, with Allen Ginsberg, pays homage at the grave of Jack Kerouac. There are visits with Rueben "Hurricane" Carter in his jail cell and off-stage antics. It has many whimsical moments, plenty of hard-driving rock and roll and yes, it veers off the track on several occasions, but even those moments are not without their poetry.
Dylan himself takes directorial credit, and while he was surely the man in control of his vision, one must look to the person credited as Assistant Director for the more mundane aspects. This man was Jacques Levy, a former New York City psychologist who had dabbled on Broadway and whose only other screen directorial credit up to that time was for "Oh! Calcutta!" (1972), the nostalgic strip show. Peter McGuinn of the Byrds introduced Dylan and Levy in 1969. Interestingly, Levy and Dylan co-wrote all but two of the songs on Dylan's 1976 album "Desire," including "Hurricane," "Isis," "Joey," "Romance in Durango" and others which appear on the film soundtrack. Levy now teaches theater at Colgate University.
However, at the time the film was made, Levy probably could not be considered to have mastery as a director. Nor could claims of mastery be made by cinematographer and film editor Howard Alk, whose career peaked with this film. The producer was Mel Howard, and his only other credit as a producer at the time was "Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx" (1970). The point to mentioning all this is that Dylan was not surrounded by an over-abundance of talent when he made the film, other than the performers with him on the screen. It is testimony to Dylan's own talent that his vision was realized to any degree.
It is said that Dylan was unhappy with D.A. Pennebaker's documentary of his 1965 UK tour, "Dont Look Back," (also featuring Baez, and even Allen Ginsberg in the background of the famous "Subterranean Homesick Blues" que card scene) because he didn't get a cut of the financial action. Yet, "Renaldo and Clara" owes something to Pennebaker's work. It has the same freshness, style and spontaneity, though it is darker and more original.
"Renaldo and Clara" is a complex film. It's a concert tour film, a love story, a dues-paying to artistic influences. But simply because it is long and complex does not mean it is without its many joys. If Fellini had signed his name to this cinematic work of art, it might have been considered a masterpiece.
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