Chock full of wondrous musical segments (not all of them on the concert stage) and some choice bits of post-Beat tomfoolery, rendered by a cast of musicians, actors and veteran exhibitionists rapidly approaching their ‘Sell by’ date, Renaldo & Clara is a four-hour expedition into the deepest recesses of Bob Dylan’s vanity; a film projectile of wildly uncertain velocity and direction . . . concert doco, avant-garde aspirant, Theater of Ennui also-ran, and a big ol’ Narcissus pool everyone can splash around in; it is all of these things . . . that, despite the best efforts of its director, was written off as a catastrophe by American critics upon its highly limited release in 1978.
Offering the institutional viewpoint, Janet Maslin (in the January 26, 1978 edition of The New York Times) would write:
Mr. Dylan has always been elusive; that’s no mean part of his charm. But his best work, like the “Blood on the Tracks” album released a couple of years ago, has derived its momentum from alternating currents of passion and restraint, from conflicting impulses to repress and to reveal. “Renaldo and Clara” addresses this apparent contradiction so passively, even cold-bloodedly, that it seldom has the urgency it needs. The film is full of connections to be made and riddles to be solved, but it approaches these things so dispassionately that the viewer has little choice but to follow suit.
Even though Mr. Dylan makes it clear that he in no way wanted to make a concert film, the footage of him in performance provides not only the film’s most electrifying moments but also its most emblematic ones. On the Rolling Thunder tour, Mr. Dylan performed in whiteface, and he is photographed here in tight closeup, singing so ferociously that his sweat melts the makeup; the film’s sense of a person at war with a mask is never more riveting than when the camera studies Mr. Dylan’s face as he sings. Every detail of these shots is resonant, from the fiery look in Mr. Dylan’s eyes to the fresh flowers that someone has apparently been hired to tuck into his hatbrim, just before each show.
The film contains more than its share of dead weight, but it is seldom genuinely dull. On the credit side, there are a great many isolated images that have an independent vitality, from the sight of Joan Baez, looking unexpectedly dreamy in a white gown, to the spectacle of Allen Ginsberg, introduced as “without a doubt a very interesting and clever personality,” reading his poetry to a bewildered band of middle-aged ladies.
It’s a pity that the editing of the film, which is credited to Mr. Dylan and Howard Alk, pays so little heed to consistency. Following a pattern of linear thought is clearly not one of the film’s concerns, but maintaining a constant degree of intensity should have been; this way, by carelessly commingling very complex and suggestive episodes with very flat and simple ones, the editing continually throws an already befuddled viewer even further off balance. Interludes like the culminating meeting of Mr. Dylan, Mrs. Dylan and Miss Baez, at once quite rarefied and in an atmosphere that is amusingly mundane, and an exceedingly one-note segment devoted to Hurricane Carter, are so incompatible that they simply don’t belong in the same movie.
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