It begins with what has been called the first music video. Shot near the end of D.A. Pennebaker’s time together with Bob Dylan in 1965, it’s a perfect introduction, having the artist display and discard a series of cue cards showing selected phrases and words from the lyrics of his song ”Subterranean Homesick Blues” as it is played. As if this isn’t amusing enough, we can also spot the legendary Beat poet Allen Ginsburg during this sequence. A riveting way to begin a documentary that quickly became a role model for many others to follow.
Pennebaker was first approached by Albert Grossman, Dylan’s combative manager, who had seen a film where the director had recorded a jazz vocalist, Dave Lambert, who subsequently died in a car crash. That film gained some attention and Grossman wanted Pennebaker to document Bob Dylan’s upcoming tour of Britain in 1965. The director was not really a fan, he had only heard a song or two on the radio, but agreed to do it. We follow Dylan and his entourage as they travel England and perform their folk music live. The young artist is frequently compared with Donovan, the Scottish folk singer who was big at the time.
Along for the tour is Joan Baez, who was Dylan’s girlfriend at the time. We can see how connected they are when it comes to music, but their romantic relationship was coming to an end.
Young, fresh-faced and cocky
It’s fascinating to see this film 50 years later, now that we’re used to a much older Bob Dylan. What we have here is a young, fresh-faced and cocky talent whose temper is occasionally on display. There are scenes where he clashes with the British press, including a moment where he tries to talk about politics and the media (using TIME Magazine as an example) and comes across as very young in a negative way – confusing, arrogant and vague but nevertheless supremely self-assured. At other moments his musical charisma is obvious, as in a charming scene where he and Baez take us through a number of old Hank Williams tunes.
Since Pennebaker didn’t know much about Dylan, the film gives the impression of the director getting to know his subject along the way together with the audience. His style is that of a fly on the wall, what’s now known as ”direct cinema” in the documentary genre; we’re not getting any talking heads, or written information, to fill in blanks, just a camera capturing a moment in time together with the film’s subject. Pennebaker had done the same with John F. Kennedy in Primary (1960) and his style would influence future directors. The ambition is clearly to be present and show things as they are without comment, but the filmmaker’s point of view will always be part of it, since someone has to choose what to film and put in the movie, and how to edit it.
It’s not just a random collection of moments, there is a narrative here. The film ends with Dylan capping his tour by performing at the venerable Royal Albert Hall and then getting into a car where he’s told that the press has labeled him an ”anarchist”, something he apparently didn’t see coming. Watching him deliver a now classic line that has survived far beyond this film seems like not an end but the beginning of his real breakthrough.
Dont Look Back 1967-U.S. 96 min. B/W. Produced by John Court, Albert Grossman. Written and directed by D.A. Pennebaker.
Trivia: Pennebaker also made 65 Revisited (2007), a documentary consisting of footage shot for Dont Look Back.
Quote: “Give the anarchist a cigarette.” (Dylan after hearing what the press has labeled him)
Last word: “At the end of about the third day, I started listening to what Dylan was saying and I realized the film to make was not a music film; he’s going to make those himself, with albums and records. I realized this is a person who might be a poet, but doesn’t know it yet. He’s trying to figure it out. And that’s such an interesting thing to watch, so I was going to record every word he said, if I could. I was pretty much alone. I had Jones Alk doing sound for me, but I didn’t know her. She was a friend of Dylan’s, really. And sometimes I didn’t even have her.” (Pennebaker, Slant Magazine)