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Music Video Review: Bob Dylan’s Renaldo & Clara

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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,

sadi ranson-polizzotti

Note: Renaldo and Clara is not commercially available through Amazon and the regular venues, though other sources may have copies.

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About Sadi Ranson-Polizzotti

  • GoHah

    you’re pretty much on target–I’m a big Dylan fan, and I saw it long ago at a theater, sat through the whole thing in a mix of astonishment and boredom: I knew something was going on, but I didn’t know what it was. Then again, nothing was going on–I’m pretty sure they were winging it, and making it up as they went along.

  • http://www.tantmieux.squarespace.com sadi ranson-polizzotti

    GoHah, yup; i think they had some sort of dialogue situational set-ups, if you get my drift, but no real set ups that were going to be of any merit. it would be better just to see the tour, though i couldn’t find footage of that either to list here. If anyone knows, let me know. This was interesting, and it’s about four hours long; it just seemed like five to me…

    thanks for reading, and cheers to you; always nice to meet another Dylan fan. MY site is a big part Dylan if you want to check it out through my link (just skip this piece there),

    Rock on.

    Sadi

  • GoHah

    I’ll check out your site–Thanks

  • http://www.tantmieux.squarespace.com sadi ranson-polizzotti

    sure thing; just one part of it is Dylan – easy to find through the navigation. thanks 😉

  • Quintessential Jane

    So, I haven’t seen the film, been looking for it for a while. however, I am a life long dylan fan(quite literally, I wouldn’t sleep as an infant without my father blasting blonde on blonde)and after reading this, there are a few things I’d like to say. I will not argue that the film isn’t bad, however little we like to admit it even Dylan trips up from time to time and having not seen it myself I surely couldn’t make a value judgement. However, there were a few things that were said in here that I thought a bit out of touch; much like putting a man on a pedistole who, from the description of the film, may very well have been trying to tear himself down from such a position. The man is human, the man was a rock star, he was no angel and further, even if this is more fantasy than reality, it at least shows you what his real fantasies were. The same that any very young man in his position would have had to an extent. Baez vs. Sara is not necessarily sadistic, but also may be something true he had to deal with. Ex lovers and current lovers often have to deal with one another and honestly, in my humble opinion, it often has a more lasting impact on the person in the middle(Dylan in this case) than it does on the lovers. I suppose what I am trying to say is the lyrics this man writes are, like any other artist, an expression of the self he would most like to be- open, honest, caring, etc. The man he is in interviews and in public is his public self and the man you saw in the film is the part of the artist that remains hidden, the part that people find distasteful. Everyone has to be honest from time to time even in such a way as making a film about themself, but not.
    As I said before, I haven’t seen the film, but from the review I’d venture that it was possibly one man’s attempt to show his not only human side, but the less than human side that resides in all of us to some extent. On the other hand, perhaps it was just another thing he put out. This man has been less than forthright is personal life throughout his career, remaining a strange enigma, and due to that fact I don’t think it is far fetched to say he was just toying with his fans who don’t feel that he has already contributed enough to their lives through his music and feel the need to go digging deeper into what he keeps as his own, himself.

  • Mike

    you just HAVE to check out this video about Dylan. It’s hilarious!

  • http://www.tantmieux.squarespace.com/ sadi ranson-polizzotti

    hi Jane:

    Sure – i don’t think we disagree. I think Dylan was revealing part of his fantasy self, or idealized self, in the film – if you see it, i think he shows who he almost “wishes” he were to some extent – but then again, at the same time, who Dylan wishes he was is part of his reality, so it’s a plaiting or intertwining – a rich tapestry – of the two…

    There are a lot of complexities in the film, but you have to be very patient to watch it – as some of it doesn’t always make sense or follow and it’s about three hours long, as I recall (it’s been a while since i last saw it…) It’s interesting, but I really think it’s Dylan as his idealized self to some extent – as “Renaldo”…

    Your comment makes a great deal of sense however… and is interesting….

    be well,

    s.r.p.

  • Mary

    Like the rest of us Bob Dylan wants to be loved. His expectations may be on a grander scale in so much as he may require infinite love from the women he loves. He loves Sara one way and he loves Joan another way but love him both, he does and for Joan to be willing to play this part and do the tour her love must be never ending. You can see in her that she adores him as I am sure Sara adores him. He may have wanted Sara to have just accepted his loving others as just a fact of his life which in his mind did not diminish his love for her. He loved Joan first and without malice found himself at the same time desirous of another. The love he has fdor these women and maybe many others will not diminish over time and if you want to call this an ego trip for Bob who cares I just believe he is the greatest most life changing person to have been placed on this earth i can not fathom being as smart or to have even thought of life as he did way back then. There is something so magical about this man and I am glad to have found him. He like all of us are merely mortal and he aches, and bleeds, and wants to be loved does that make him a freak or something? I think not I think he is truly magnificent and for these women loving him may not have been so easy but I bet their lives are richer in more way than one for having been that close to a genius

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