Bob Dylan’s epic 1978 film Renaldo and Clara—a four-hour fever dream of concert footage, documentary, narrative pieces co-written by Sam Shepard—is nearly as legendary as the Rolling Thunder Revue concert tour that fueled it, excessive in every way, doomed by critical consensus as an impossible-to-sit-through failure.
I’d always been a little bit afraid to watch it, honestly. It was universally panned, receiving the worst reviews of Dylan’s career, and that’s saying something. Dylan never officially released it, and after a few sporadic screenings around the world, he seemed to do his best to make the film disappear altogether. But, thanks to the internet, I stumbled across a stream of pretty decent quality. So I popped a bottle of champagne, sat down, and clicked play, expecting the worst.
And to be fair, twenty minutes in, I was already baffled. The camera work was shaky, the dialogue mumbled, Dylan’s band wearing masks and making jokes I couldn’t seem to get. An extended scene of singer David Blue playing pinball in front of a swimming pool, talking about the folk scene at the Gaslight. So far, so weird.
But then something amazing happened.
Cue Bob Dylan in the first of a series of remarkable hats, kissing a woman while playing guitar, in what seems to be the back room of a mechanic’s garage, while the mustachioed mechanic watches.
“You running from the law?” the mechanic asks.
“I am the law,” says Dylan.
And we’re off.
What follows is a series of bizarre vignettes and rock and roll, rife with religious imagery, angels strumming violins, a multitude of Christ statues, and Joan Baez playing some sort of temptress goddess of love.
Scenes of Ronnie Hawkins playing Dylan, Dylan playing Dylan, no one playing Dylan, Dylan playing an outlaw named Renaldo, chasing the Woman in White, who is played alternately by Joan Baez, Bob’s then-wife Sara Dylan, and hell, probably some other women too, I lost count.
And then, out of nowhere, we get Mick Ronson and Allen Ginsberg leading a meditative chant of “Yeah yeah yeah go go baby, bop shoo wop, doo wah diddy!”
The narrative might be incomprehensible, but the flow isn’t, and the images are right on point. This is a film to get lost in, a film to explore with joy and gratitude. It’s an adventure movie, Bob Dylan as a pre-Indiana Jones, shuffled through the French New Wave and written by Beat Poets.
Where the film truly shines is in the live performances. From “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” to “Romance In Durango,” the music absolutely slays. Regardless of their acting skill, the Rolling Thunder Revue is one of the wildest, greatest rock and roll bands ever assembled, from Scarlet Rivera’s careening violin, Rob Stoner’s visceral backing hollers, a remarkable five genius guitar players. Nothing has sounded like it before or sense. The version of “Isis” in particular is pure fire, Bob Dylan in white face paint, looking like a re-animated zombie scarecrow, screaming out a tale of warning, wonder and woe, a gypsy’s curse.
Other moments, remarkable in their grace: Dylan and Sara walking in the snow. Joan Baez, grinning, dancing her ass off. Ginsberg reading a devastating “Kaddish,” getting prayed over, having his beard shaved. The gnarliest version of “House of the Rising Sun” ever. Dylan and Ginsberg, standing over Jack Kerouac’s grave, discussing lovely remarkable Jack.
“What graves have you seen?” Ginsberg asks.
“Victor Hugo’s grave,” says Dylan.
I don’t know. It’s perfect.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not any Bob Dylan expert, I’ve never written a scholarly article about him. But what I am—if you haven’t guessed already—is a massive fan. Not much music has ever meant more to me than his, and particularly that 1971-81 run (yes, I’m including the Christian stuff; I think Shot of Love is one of the greatest albums of all time, but that’s for another article). Then, for me, Renaldo and Clara is an absolute joy, a journey through the wild dreamworld mythology of one of my favorite artists of all time, a land where poets and gods and bandits go stalking down the road, seeking after your soul. I’m grateful for all two hundred thirty-two bizarre, wonderful, frustrating minutes.
Also Harry Dean Stanton and Joan Baez make out while Dylan rides around on a horse. That’s pretty cool too.