In white-face make-up, eyes lined heavily black, and lips smeared with red, Dylan wails out the song about whom, let’s face it, the whole of Renaldo and Clara is about – Sara, his wife at the time and soon-to-be ex-wife. Well the film could be called, Renaldo and Sara anyway, but the truth is the film is just as much about Dylan himself as it is about anyone, if not more so. It’s about …(insert Spanish guitar strum here) Renaldo!!
The problem is, even for the most diehard Dylan fan or no matter how much you love or like Dylan, watching Renaldo and Clara, is, as most critics agree, a painful and arduous task (yes, task) that takes about five hours or longer. I’ve watched and read everything Dylan and would do a lot, including watching five hours of Renaldo and Clara to review it. But there is little here to review, despite five or so hours of footage. That said, let me do my level best to tell the story of Renaldo and Clara.
Essentially, Renaldo and Clara is the Rolling Thunder Revue tour; the only trouble here is that Dylan has a bit too much artistic control over a project. Perhaps he shouldn’t have had so much input. There are scenes interspersed with the concert footage which, by the way, is great (particularly when he sings or wails out Sara – or should I say Clara as she appears in the film.) But no matter how much Dylan may profess his love in beautifully poetic song, there is something sadistic about having his ex-lover and his present – if only by a thread – wife in the film at the same time, in the same room, and interacting.
Sara and Dylan would divorce not too long after The Rolling Thunder tour. They would make another ‘go’ of it, but to no avail. Dylan wanted to stay on the road; Sara wanted a more stable life and was tired, so it is written, of the expected things that went on during the tour.
That said, any marriage is a mystery between two people, or three if you’re Christian and listen to the service, and none of this is to be taken lightly so I can’t say, nor can anyone really, what went on behind closed doors, only that it didn’t work out.
Ex-lover Joan Baez features in Renaldo and Clara as the “Woman in White” and speaks with a piss-poor French accent. (Why?) The rest of the women, including Sara, sit about in sateen robes of red and black with push-up corsets, tits all a jiggle. There is red everywhere you look – on nails, in the red wine of the glasses, in the plastic of the seats. There is something garish – almost brothel-like about such scenes as the women sit around waiting and discussing, hopefully awaiting the arrival of ….drum-roll/guitar please (take a breath) – Renaldo.
Is it really Dylan’s (adolescent) fantasy to have a group of seedy looking chicks waiting backstage or is that just what happens on the road and he’s gotten used to it and lost all semblance of taste?
God help us, this isn’t the Dylan of the ’65 tour or the ’66 tour all thin and hip in his black peg-legs and Ray Bans. This is different or seems different. Hey, for all I know, he always had chicks in sateen hanging around during tours. Though, it seems during Eat the Document and Don’t Look Back that Dylan was more a one or two woman man. But he, like the rest of us, has just as much right to change – a fact people forget of the famous, expecting them to say the same.
But who is this Dylan? He has emerged from his accident and his reclusive self in a state of changed mind? While we can still appreciate and even love the performance, the music, and even groove on the white face paint and face makeup because it somehow goes with his floppy hat with the flowers.
It’s a look, like any other look he’s had and it’s really not that bad. More, it’s smart. Dylan is the most recognizable person on that stage (and there are many) not just for his music, but for his white face and his large, flower-capped hat as well.
Dylan, the public Dylan that we see front stage is still as lovable, desirable, talented, and gifted as ever. It’s the backstage Dylan that I’m not so sure of. With his sadistic replaying of the first time Sara and Baez met. (Dylan was in the hospital with food poisoning and Baez came to visit while Sara was there…not exactly a fun or fine introduction since at the time Dylan had just taken Baez on the 65 tour and was now with Sara. Neither knew of the other. What a surprise for both women!) This scene is played out again and again in the film, with Baez walking in on the two (Renaldo and Clara/Sara and Dylan as they embrace, as they are all over each other, as they look like they are about to make love).
Elsewhere, girls parade about in teddies, bad lingerie, and feather boas, Sara often being one of them. Men hang onto them naturally, and everything seems black or red, including the grain of the film – black, white, and red like Dylan’s painted face.
As the girls dance about the room shaking their stuff, the proclamation is sent down as one man, a roadie?, who knows, says “Please somebody fuck me,” and so it is and so it will be. He is accommodated, we take it, by one or more of the women. Let the fucking begin. (Rumor has it there was a lot of backstage and secretive and not so secretive fornicating during the making of Renaldo and Clara, which I would believe from the entire five hours that I watched).
But whether they do or do not (fuck) is really not the point, because I’m not sure what the point of the scene is at all. It’s like the scenes in which, god help us, there is dialogue between the characters just go on and on. (Not the scenes with Dylan and Allen Ginsberg who seems to be along for the ride – that much is interesting) But Ginsberg may be the most interesting person even in this tragedy of a film. Here he is as ever astute, clever, witty, and funny at times. (His dance is hilarious, even for the time, unlike Joan Baez who dances on stage and just looks dumb and I like Joan Baez, so it gives me no pleasure to write any of this.)
The point is, Dylan should have kept the concert footage, a few shots of the areas around, (the sort of Pennebaker work that he had done earlier in the sixties,) and perhaps some of the backstage stuff and the rest. The whole Renaldo and Clara story and the little conversations and scenes that surround it should have been scraped. They offer little to any true understanding of the tour or of Dylan’s state of mind at the time. Dylan is seen very little in the actual film – or Renaldo is seen very infrequently. Someone else, amusingly, plays the backstage Bob Dylan.
The problem here is that much of the conversation backstage is staged, and it just doesn’t work. It’s truly akin to watching a bad daytime television drama except the characters are underpaid, just don’t give a shit any more, and say everything with the same blank affect with dialogue that goes nowhere. For the record, most of the dialogue is sexual in nature, either Sara or some other girl – even Baez – set up with this or that guy who is trying desperately to pick her up only to be met with repeated, but weak, comebacks a sort of “go away” ~ “stay, I’m liking this game.”
When all is said and done, for five hours of footage, there isn’t a whole lot more or anything profound to really say about Renaldo and Clara. Yes, it’s interesting to watch Dylan paint his face white with that heavy, thick paint and to watch how he transforms himself. And it’s always amazing to hear him sing because his voice has such power and here, his voice is stronger than Baez’s heavy and carrying alto, which he over-sings easily, effortlessly. He may want to be Renaldo, but Dylan is still Dylan and that’s never a bad thing.
There are redeeming qualities to Renaldo and Clara, but they are not to be found in the backstage realms of the program. The actual concert footage is well-worth while though I found myself wanting more of that and less of the “film” as it were. Further, while it may be interesting to see some of Dylan’s fantasies played out, however sadistic at the time, and it’s even interesting to see the whole Sara/Baez fiasco, but one has to ask oneself, Why? Why would he do this and what is the point. The rest of the dialogue seems made up on the spot by the actors (and we must use this term loosely because most if not all of the people featured here are road crew and friends and other performers).
You may have already seen Renaldo and Clara and perhaps you disagree, or perhaps not, in which case it might be easier to find Rolling Thunder Revue concert footage videos and forget the rest of this film. There are a few videos out there that can be downloaded and many photographs, but don’t bother with a five hour length film. Maybe it does tell us something about Dylan, and maybe I’m just missing some deeper meaning here, but given how much I like Dylan of then and now and every time really, I have to wonder what went wrong other than youth.
thanks for reading,
Note: Renaldo and Clara is not commercially available through Amazon and the regular venues, though other sources may have copies.