Eat the Document/ Renaldo & Clara
Though Bob Dylan has proven a riveting subject for several documentaries (chiefly D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back and Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home), his own attempts at filmmaking have proven, well, less noteworthy. He was no fan of Don’t Look Back, but admired Pennebaker enough to ask him to come along on his 1966 English tour with the Hawks, in which contentious audiences booed and heckled the “electric” half of the show. Pennebaker was working as a hired gun this time around, shooting but not directing; he did, however, put together a first edit of the project, which was slated to air as an ABC special. Dylan rejected the Pennebaker version as too conventional (and too similar to Don’t Look Back), deciding to recut it himself; he ended up taking years to do so, poring over the footage while recovering from his 1966 motorcycle accident. When he finally turned it over to ABC, they rejected the film as indecipherable. To some degree, they were right; the film is a confused hodgepodge of snippets and notions with only tantalizing, brief snatches of the incredible music created on the tour. (Scorsese repurposed much of the footage, to better effect, in No Direction Home). Eat the Document was never released, theatrically or for home video, though bootleg copies persist and the film can be seen in its entirety at the Paley Center for Media in New York.
Whatever its flaws, Eat the Document was positively cogent compared to Dylan’s next directorial outing, the four-hour monstrosity Renaldo & Clara. Shot during the 1975 “Rolling Thunder” tour, it was a strange and mostly impenetrable mishmash of concert sequences and non-linear storytelling, heavy on symbolism and meta-commentary. Its original 1978 release was greeted by scathing reviews and negligible box office; a shorter version (half as long, mostly concentrating on music) received a wider release but no better response. Dylan allowed a single airing on British television, but the film has never been released on VHS or DVD. Both Eat the Document and Renaldo & Clara prove Dylan is no filmmaker, but both feature tantalizing glimpses of his musical genius — enough to make us hope for official releases, in spite of their flaws.