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Bob Dylan's Renaldo & Clara: Asleep In The Tomb

Bob Dylan’s Lost Classic
Renaldo & Clara:
Asleep In the Tomb
By James Calemine

"I've been double-crossed for the very last time,
And now I'm finally free"
          "Idiot Wind"
           Bob Dylan                    

In an age of DVD, reissued classics emerge every so often. For those aficionados seeking obscure music cinema, Bob Dylan’s Renaldo & Clara, a film he wrote, directed, and produced, remains an unreleased prize. Renaldo & Clara contains threads of traditional southern music throughout this film. Dylan’s cinematic epic, originally released in theatres in 1978, unfortunately exists only as a rare bootleg in the mainstream world of rock and roll films.

Renaldo & Clara remains Bob Dylan’s classic subterranean film. Dylan intended the four-hour movie to be twice as long, considering the filming process for Renaldo & Clara began with Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue tour in 1975, and continued for nearly two years. This enigmatic motion picture features an all-star cast, including Ronnie Hawkins, Harry Dean Stanton, Roger McGuinn, Allen Ginsberg, Sam Shepard, Ronee Blakley, David Blue, Sara Dylan, Joan Baez, Arlo Guthrie, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Bobby Neuwirth, Scarlet Rivera, Mell Howard, Rob Stoner, T-Bone Burnett, Helena Kaillianotes, Mick Ronson, Steven Soles, Luther Rix, and David Mansfield. It’s a wonder such an obscure gem remains buried in a vault.

Renaldo & Clara operates deeps beneath the surface compared to other films involving Dylan, such as Don’t Look Back, Eat the Document, The Concert for Bangladesh, Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, and the disastrous Hearts of Fire. The film’s narrative weaves a mysterious musical and visual chronicle of Dylan’s traveling medicine show during a time when America celebrated its bicentennial anniversary. Dylan biographer Robert Shelton wrote about the movie: “The finished film, running nearly four hours, became a candidate for commercial suicide. It was a complex, often non-communicative film that was triumph musically but a dramatic failure.”

In 1978, Renaldo & Clara confused critics, and most gave the film low marks. Somewhat disturbed by the criticism, Dylan said, “Reading the reviews of the movie, I sensed a feeling of them wanting to crush things. Those reviews weren’t about the movie. They were just an excuse to get at me for one reason or another. I was disappointed that the critics couldn’t get beyond the superficial elements. They thought the movie was all about Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Sara Dylan…and it wasn’t.”

In the movie’s opening concert footage, Dylan wears a clear rubber mask while leading the Rolling Thunder Revue through a swirling version of “When I Paint My Masterpiece.” This masked stage appearance seems strange, even for Dylan. Filmed in an atmosphere of improvisation, the movie alternates between scenes of intense live performances and abstruse vignettes providing an interesting collection of images.

Perhaps while playing “Alias” in Sam Peckinpah’s great 1973 western Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, Dylan (who wrote the film’s soundtrack) absorbed certain cinematic techniques from the legendary maverick filmmaker. Some of the grainy film’s best shots capture austere landscapes, railroads, churches, graveyards, and rivers, accompanied by an undeniable soundtrack. An early scene filmed from a train window reveals a desolate winter landscape covered with snow at sunset, echoed by a lonesome fiddle and piano version of Dylan singing Hank Williams’ “Kaw-liga.”

Another interesting live performance scene shows Dylan wearing eerie white face paint during an intense, theatrical version of “Isis.” Dylan plays harmonica and roves the stage without his guitar like a medicine man orchestrating a band of musical gypsies. The Rolling Thunder musicians, mostly from New York, served as Dylan’s band for the studio albums Desire and Street Legal. The musicians included Rob Stoner, bass; Steven Soles, rhythm guitar; Bobby Neuwirth, rhythm guitar; Roger McGuinn, twelve-string guitar; Mick Ronson, lead guitar; David Mansfield, violin, dobro, and pedal steel; T-Bone Burnett, rhythm guitar; Howie Wyeth, drums; Luther Rix, percussion; and Scarlet Rivera, electric violin. Dylan discovered Rivera walking the streets of New York and asked her to join his band on the spot. Dylan released a live album, Hard Rain, involving the Rolling Thunder Revue musicians. After completing Renaldo & Clara, the next underrated studio album, Street Legal, foreshadowed Dylan’s Christian albums that were mostly recorded in Muscle Shoals, Alabama.

Sara Dylan, Bob’s ex-wife, appears throughout the movie. From the time filming began in 1975 to its release in 1978, the Dylans suffered a bitter divorce, soaking the film with irony, considering Sara Dylan’s paradoxical role as “Clara” in the film as Joan Baez’s rival. The movie operates on a delicate balance between fiction and nonfiction. In a 1977 interview, Dylan spoke about Renaldo & Clara: “Let’s say that in real life Bob Dylan fixes his name on the public. He can retrieve that name at will. Anything else the public made of it is its own business. The film is no puzzle, it’s A-B-C-D, but the compositions are like a game – the red flower; the hat, the red and blue themes. The interest is not in literal plot but in the associated texture – colors, images, sounds.”

Ronnie Hawkins and Ronee Blakley portray Mr. & Mrs. Dylan in the film. In a kitsch motel-lobby press attack, a clueless reporter asks Hawkins, “Who is the real Bob Dylan?” and Hawkins replies, “A hero of the highest order.”

Connections from Dylan’s past represent another cultural and personal layer in the film. Dylan stole The Band (then the Hawks) from Ronnie Hawkins years earlier. At most of the venues where the Rolling Thunder Revue played to a sold out house, Dylan and the Hawks had endured booing crowds a decade before.

Later, the film progresses onto a scene involving a contemporary Iroquois Indian town hall gathering. To Native Americans, Rolling Thunder translates into “speaking truth.” At one point, Dylan walks through the crowd shaking men’s hands, kissing an old woman on the cheek, and smiling at the children during a Thanksgiving celebration. The soundtrack transmits a soulful piano rendition of Dylan singing Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready.”

The songs hold this dense film together. At least forty tracks performed in rehearsed, unreleased, and live arrangements bend the listener’s ear during the uncut film version. At one point, a two-hour version of the movie circulated for television consisting mostly of live footage. Some of the Dylan compositions include “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall”, “I Want You,” “It Ain’t Me Babe,” “Catfish,” “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door,” “She Belongs Me,” “Sara,” “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry,” “If You See Her Say Hello,” “Just Like a Woman,” “Romance in Durango,” “One Too Many Mornings,” “One More Cup of Coffee,” and “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” as well as songs by Baez, McGuinn, Elliot, and Blakley.

Dylan informed playwright Sam Shepard he wanted to create a film with an atmosphere resembling the French films Children of Paradise or Shoot the Piano Player. Shepard later published a book about the tour called The Rolling Thunder Logbook, but much of his work was discarded for Renaldo & Clara. Shepard later collaborated with Dylan in 1985 when they wrote “Brownsville Girl,” an eleven-minute epic on Dylan’s Knocked Out Loaded album. In a 1978 interview Dylan elaborated on the script situation: “Renaldo & Clara was originally intended as a more structured film, I hired playwright Sam Shepard to provide dialogue, but we didn’t use much of his stuff because of a conflict of ideas.”

Even though Shepard felt somewhat frustrated on the tour, he never doubted Dylan’s musical talents. In his Rolling Thunder Logbook, Shepard described Dylan’s power in a quiet hotel bar on that tour: “Dylan moves up on the platform to the rickety old upright piano used for years for the sole purpose of producing middle class pabulum Big Band sounds of the ‘30s and ‘40s. He sits, stabs his bony fingers into the ivories, and begins a pounding version of ‘Simple Twist of Fate.’ Here’s where it’s at. The Master Arsonist. The place is smoking within five minutes. The ladies are twitching deep within their corsets. The whole piano is shaking and seems on the verge of jumping right off the wooden platforms. Dylan’s cowboy heel is driving a hole through the floor. Roger McGuinn appears with the guitar, then Neuwirth, and the whole band joins in until every molecule of air in the place is bursting. This is Dylan’s true magic. Leave aside his lyrical genius for a second and just watch this transformation of energy which he caries…”

Dylan’s grueling tour schedule added a complexity to the filming. Dylan edited some one hundred hours for Renaldo & Clara. In 1978 he said, “I knew it was not going to be a short movie because we couldn’t tell that story in an hour. Originally I couldn’t see how we could do it under seven or eight hours. But we subtracted songs and scenes and dialogue until we couldn’t subtract anymore. There was a lot of chaos while we were making the film. A lot of good scenes didn’t happen because we had already finished improvising by the time the cameras were ready to film. You can’t recapture stuff like that. There was a lot of conflict during filming. We had people who didn’t understand what we were doing because we didn’t have a script. Some who didn’t understand were willing to go along with us anyway. Others weren’t and that hurt us. It hurt the film.”

On another occasion Dylan told Maclean’s magazine: “There’s no way I should or could explain the movie…but I can’t explain “Desolation Row” either…Sara (Dylan) and Joan Baez were the same woman…it’s like a cubist painting. Maybe there are only two or three people in the universe who are going to understand what the movie’s about.”

In one scene, Sam Shepard and Sara Dylan portray a married couple in a transparent domestic setting, discussing staying together, having babies, and earthly strains between a man and a woman while Dylan’s beagle dog sits next to Shepard on the couch. Subtle conflicts arise between man and woman throughout the film. After the Rolling Thunder tour, Shepard wrote a play called Suicide In B Flat. The play deals with an artist’s death of his own self, a concept Dylan had in mind for Renaldo & Clara. “It’s about the essence of a man being alienated from himself and how in order to free himself, to be re-born, he has to go outside himself. You can almost say that he dies in order to look at time and by strength of the will return to the same body…”

David Mansfield wrote soundtracks for the movies Heaven’s Gate and The Apostle, and at seventeen years old played violin, pedal steel, and dobro in Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue. Recently, Mansfield told On the Tracks magazine about Renaldo & Clara: “Bob owns it lock, stock, and barrel. He distributed it himself, I think with his brother’s help. It played on the BBC and some other places, so there are tapes floating around, like check air tapes. To a certain degree the film, as a dramatic piece, was sort of conceptualized after the fact. Bob asked Sam Shepard to come along to be the writer of the film. Sam got out on the road and was thoroughly confused and bewildered because it was unlike any other gig he had before as a writer. He became a participant like everybody else. As I gathered-and I think I’m right about this- it seemed somebody would come up with an idea and say, ‘Okay, let’s grab the crew and go do it!’ It was all extemporaneous, and consequently, on the technical level, there were never any reverses or reverse angles, because it was just one hand-held camera for the dramatic sequences. I mean really for me, more than anything else, it’s like a very surreal home movie documentary, an extemporaneous psychodrama.”

Joni Mitchell appears briefly in the film. Although she played a more prominent role on the Rolling Thunder Tour than Renaldo & Clara revealed, Mitchell really shined in Martin Scorcese’s The Last Waltz, which eventually coincided with the release of Dylan’s film. In Levon Helm’s book, This Wheel’s On Fire, he mentioned Dylan’s reluctance to be filmed the night The Band recorded The Last Waltz: “I wasn’t that surprised, Howard Alk had been saying all week it wasn’t going to work because Bob didn’t want to compete with himself having The Last Waltz and Renaldo & Clara go head to head…”

A sad mood guides Renaldo & Clara like an undercurrent, evident in a desolate silent shot of a marble angel located in a graveyard under bare winter trees outlined against the pale blue sky scattered with pink and gray clouds as a distant piano version of Dylan singing “In the Pines” lingers over the screen. Dylan’s epic overloads the viewer with mysterious images, scenes, characters, and songs throughout this dense film. In one moment, a shot pans quickly from a mad preacher shouting his sermon at a crowd gathered on the street to a live-shot of the Rolling Thunder’s swirling and reckless sound sending Dylan out on a desperate fringe in white face paint, singing, “Where have you been, my blue-eyed son?”

A certain vaudeville intensity masks Renaldo & Clara. Cinematic qualities of the film’s theatrical dynamic resemble Ingmar Bergman’s The Magician, or the silent frames call to mind Fedrico Fellini’s 8 ½. Yet, even in its glorious self-indulgence, the film operates on a humble appreciation for beauty in the ordinary.

An interlude of Renaldo & Clara concentrates on actual footage of boxer Ruben “Hurricane” Carter bidding for a new trial for release from prison, inspiring Dylan’s song “Hurricane,” Carter tells the story of Dylan coming to visit him in prison on a special trip from France after receiving Carter’s book, The Sixteenth Round. Dylan then organized a concert for Carter at Madison Square Garden. Shepard wrote in his Logbook, “It is billed as a benefit, and it’s for sure that the public interest generated by the presence of Muhammad Ali and Dylan in the same space is going to leak down to the New Jersey jailhouse and work its own kind of leverage on the law. Already the papers are talking about reprieves and retrials, and there’s no doubt that this event will add some muscle to the whole cause.”

Harry Dean Stanton (an old Peckinpah actor-friend) surfaces out of nowhere in the film, strolling down an anonymous street in a conspicuous manner. Soon, he’s singing and kissing Baez in a scene where Renaldo trades his woman for a horse.

Beat poet Allen Ginsberg also appears throughout the film…Ginsberg traveled with the Rolling Thunder Revue, and the beat writer serves as another dimension in Renaldo & Clara, saluting that American literary tradition Dylan admired. In one unforgettable scene, Dylan and Ginsberg read from Jack Kerouac’s work while standing over his grave. For faithful fans and scholars, this one scene redeems years spent searching for this rare film. Ginsberg points down and asks Dylan: “Is that what’s gonna happen to you?” “No, I want to be in an unmarked grave.” Dylan responded.

In such scenes, a stark clarity impresses upon the viewer a rare glimpse into Dylan’s soulful cinematic intention, especially when he sings:

        Tell me what will you do when Jesus comes?
        Tell me what will you do when Jesus comes?
        Will you kick him out in the street?
        Will you drive him out in the heat?
        Tell me what will you do when Jesus comes?

A final confrontational scene culminates between the Dylan, Baez, and Sara Dylan characters, reminding the viewer of a thin line between an artist’s life and his work. Possibly the most viewed clip from Renaldo & Clara remains the last live performance scene in the film, with Dylan playing “Tangled Up in Blue” solo on an acoustic guitar. The infamous close shot reveals Dylan’s painted white face, and every once in a while his wild blue eyes peer out from under the gray hat with a red flower in the brim, projecting direct intensity.

Perhaps one day Dylan will decide to release Renaldo & Clara, especially in this golden age of DVD, but it's doubtful. Unheard versions of old Dylan songs and his choice of cover tunes render the film a classic. After searching for a copy of Dylan’s buried film, for ten years (conjuring a certain thrill searching for something so elusive all those years). I obtained a mid-grade full-length version in 1997 in Atlanta. Perhaps this obscure movie satisfies only avid collectors, bootleg freaks, film aficionados, and Dylan fanatics. If you ever get your hands on a copy of Renaldo & Clara, you’ll scratch your head wondering how long this mysterious musical vaudeville must remain asleep in the tomb.

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Mystery and Manners,
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