As someone who is unashamedly a fan of Bob Dylan, I was delighted to see the Glasgow Film Theatre (GFT) marking the 70th birthday of the Columbia recording artist with a season of screenings in May.
Including a screening of the Dylan influencing La Strada by Fellini and also consisting of Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There, Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid and DA Pennebaker’s seminal Don’t Look Back, it’s a well thought out selection which provides a decent snapshot of the life and work of the birthday boy.
For many, the standout title is the season finale on Sunday 29 May at 1pm of Renaldo & Clara. To say this is a rare screening is an understatement akin to saying Bob Dylan has written a few songs. Having received only a very limited release in 1978, you’ll struggle to find anyone who can remember the last time the film, whether in this full four-hour version or the two-hour ‘commercial’ edit, was publically screened, anywhere.
Despite unsubstantiated and largely discredited rumours of a DVD release later this year and seemingly confirmed stories of some of the footage currently being upgraded to Blu-ray standard, bootleg copies are the only access anyone has to the full movie. Not only that, but the most widely circulated bootlegs are sourced from the one-off transmission of the film by Channel 4 in the early eighties.
With this in mind, a cinema performance from a 35mm print in a glorious setting such as the GFT is an event that will see Bobcats descend on Glasgow from all over the UK and possibly beyond.
Shot during the legendary Rolling Thunder Revue tour of 1975, Renaldo & Clara is a mixture of powerful live performance footage, some documentary style interviews and partly scripted, mainly improvised dramatic scenes.
The musical content is the undoubted highlight with viewers treated to a whole bundle of songs (some incomplete) by Bob Dylan in the midst of one of the very best tours of his performing life. The songs range from interesting covers such as Hank Williams’ Kaw-Liga to renowned Dylan numbers like the storming version of Isis, the audio of which can be found on the three disc 1985 Dylan compilation Biograph.
The energy present in the onstage footage is a classic illustration of a man (debatably) at the top of his game and an historical document of one of the more remarkable tours of the rock era. Fellow musicians such as Roger McGuinn, T-Bone Burnett, Mick Ronson, Scarlett Riviera and Bobby Neuwirth to name but a few, relish their roles in the eye of a musical hurricane (pardon the pun) which battered the length of the United States and Canada.
But the movie does not consist of concert footage alone and this is where the controversy and critical mauling comes from. It’s safe to assume that the majority of the scripting supplied by Sam Shepard and Allen Ginsberg (both of whom are in the film) was never used and that the action is almost entirely improvised. Critics will point to this being a key reason for the film, which was edited down from at least 110 hours of footage, being a rambling incoherent mess.
However, after mulling over a more structured idea for the movie before the commencement of filming, Dylan had abandoned any idea of a linear method of storytelling and was partly basing his ideas on French New Wave cinema. Like so much of his recorded work, multiple interpretations would be to the fore and, far from being the result of clumsy improvisation, confounding and confusing the audience was always the likely intention.
“Renaldo & Clara took all of Dylan’s creative energies through most of 1976 and 1977 to complete. It was the most sustained and conscientious work that he had ever done, or would ever do.” Clinton Heylin – Behind The Shades
When it comes right down to it, the Bob Dylan that was making Renaldo & Clara was dwelling more on artists and painting than filmmakers. Allen Ginsberg said that a plot was of no concern, “It was like being upset at Van Gogh. It’s a painter’s film, and was composed like that. I’ve seen it about four times, and each time I see it, it becomes more logical – not rational, but logical.”
Dylan himself said in 1977, “The film is no puzzle, it’s A-B-C-D, but the composition’s like a game – the red flower, the hat, the red and blue themes. The interest is not in the literal plot but in the associated texture – colours, images, sounds.”
Alternate views on the finished, four-hour piece abound. Particularly interesting is the opinion of Sara Dylan (whose involvement in the picture and desire for privacy is a possible reason for the withholding of an official release) since the footage dates from the period in which her marriage to Bob was finally coming to its acrimonious end.
Early talk had been of scenes in which Sara as a witch goddess would set tasks for the alchemist Bob Dylan. This would develop into issues of black and white magic and the different powers of men and women. In response to certain female roles in the final film, Sara simply put it “After all that talk about goddesses, we wound up being whores.”
At this period in his career there were a good few critical knives out for the entity that was Bob Dylan and the release of Renaldo & Clara provided ample opportunity to attack the man. Village Voice remarkably printed four separate reviews of it with each one being more scathing than the next and the near universal conclusion was that this was a creative low point for the artist.
It’s hard enough to sell a four-hour movie to begin with so a critical backlash on this level was bound to kill the theatrical run almost immediately. Even a well received European Premiere at Cannes and a decent response in cities such as London couldn’t save the movie and, as far as can be established, 1978 was the last time a paying audience had the opportunity of seeing it in a cinema.
This is a sad lack of exposure for a film that, aside from the great concert recordings, is filled with curios such as Dylan with Ginsberg at the grave of Jack Kerouac, the last known footage of Phil Ochs (six months before his death) and Joan Baez being traded for a horse!
Renaldo & Clara must surely have had an occasional cinema outing since 1978 but you’ll have a hard job tracking down any evidence of such a happening, if it has happened at all. Which brings us back to what a special event this is. The GFT has to be congratulated on programming a screening that puts it on the world map.
This certainly isn’t a film for everyone and even dedicated Dylan fans will join the chorus of detractors. But for anyone looking to mark the 70th birthday of the guy from Duluth, Minnesota in a very special way, you need look no further than buying a ticket to this show.
“In the end Renaldo & Clara is a failure, but it’s a grand failure.” Michael Gray – The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia
Full details of the Bob Dylan at the Movies season are available the GFT website.