There’s a ghost here, but it’s never mentioned. It’s the four-hour Renaldo and Clara (1978) directed by Bob Dylan from a screenplay by Dylan and Sam Shepard.
Shot during the Rolling Thunder tours, that four-hour film contained plenty of excellent performance material but the rest of it was self-indulgent play-acting, face-painting, mask-wearing, pseudo-theatrical claptrap. Think bad art school improv after an undergraduate’s first viewing of some Rivette and Les Enfants du Paradis. It’s arduous, embarrassing and obscurantist and, for good reason, very difficult to see these past 40 years. Dylan played “Renaldo”, Sara Dylan played “Clara”, Joan Baez “The Woman in White”, Ronnie Blakey got to be “Mrs Dylan” and poor old Ronnie Hawkins plays “Bob Dylan”.
The Rolling Thunder Revue A Bob Dylan Story is a sort of updated and shortened Renaldo and Clara. The great performances (mostly from Dylan) are still there, but so are swags of nonsense from the earlier epic. And just in case you miss the point, Scorsese and Dylan have filmed new interviews packed with similar pretentious nonsense. Dylan, here, is playing the trickster. The other new interviewees aid and abet him. Don’t necessarily believe much of what you see and hear.
For all the spin we’ve heard about the Rolling Thunder Tours being communal, theatrical and ensemble experiences, Scorsese’s documentary is all about Dylan. We get snippets of other performers such as Joni Mitchell and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. But it’s all about Dylan.
Bootlegs abound of the 1975 and 1976 Rolling Thunder Tours. They give a real flavour of the real Rolling Thunder shows. One, from The Warehouse in New Orleans in 1976 runs over three hours and includes 12 songs and one poem (read by Dennis Hopper) from other members of the Revue. Performers include Bob Neuwirth, T-Bone Burnett, Joan Baez, Rob Stoner, Steven Soles, Donna Weiss, Mick Ronson and Kinky Freidman. Other band members: Roger McGuinn, Scarlet Rivera, David Mansfield, Howie Wyeth and Gary Burke. No Allen Ginsberg.
A one-hour television special from Rolling Thunder screened in 1976 and is on YouTube:
Go to 41.25 for an incendiary 10-minute version of Idiot Wind.