Bob Dylan Deserves Another Look Back

by Evan Sawdey

26 January 2016

D.A. Pennebaker's Dylan documentary, Dont Look Back, still feels amazingly fresh and experimental.
Still of Dylan from Dont Look Back 
cover art

Dont Look Back

Director: D. A. Pennebaker
Cast: Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Albert Grossman, Bob Neuwirth

US DVD: 24 Nov 2015

D.A. Pennebaker is arguably one of filmmaking’s biggest radicals, still celebrated as one of its most out-there extremists, because all the way back in the ‘60s, he revolutionized the world of filmmaking by doing something that no one had even thought possible with movies: he removed the camera from its tripod.

It seems like such a simple gesture, but at the time, it was anarchy. Sure, anyone could hold a camera in their hands, but Pennebaker, a humble, pleasant man who comes off less as a “film director” and more of a “nice guy” with enthusiasm for recording things, had rigged his own setup that allowed him to not only carry a camera in his hands but also record audio that syncs up perfectly with him as he moved. In 1954’s “Baby”, a short that is included in the Criterion Collection’s wonderfully overstuffed release of Pennebaker’s iconic Bob Dylan documentary Dont Look Back (the apostrophe deliberately missing), the young filmmaker wanted his daughter to roam about the zoo and, in a twist, film the animals watching her. However, his young child didn’t have the patience to stand for long takes, and was already mesmerized by the sounds that came from a nearby carousel. In filming her on her first carousel ride, Pennebaker discovered a love of subjects simply being themselves. He began taking the approach of being a “fly on the wall” in his filming of everyday, human interactions—even if the humans in question are some of the most famous people in the world.

Dont Look Back was definitely not the first music documentary ever made, but Pennebaker, again being a boundary-defying radical, was arguably the first person to treat a “non-fiction” subject with the same reverence and structure that one would treat a regular Hollywood production, finding momentum and arc in a realm that was previously reserved for instructional films and even propaganda material. It’s for this reason that even in 2016, Dont Look Back still feels amazingly experimental, following a younger-than-you-remember Bob Dylan around on a short UK solo tour and capturing this most enigmatic man at his goofiest, his most infuriated, and his most vulnerable. There is no end game or overall “thesis” to this film; rather, it’s a brief tour of Dylan’s interior world, capturing him in rare moments when he was himself capturing the cultural zeitgeist; a 24-year-old man who was rewriting the rules of pop music before our very eyes.

Opening with what is now considered the first proper rock music video in the form of the cue-card clip that is “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, Dont Look Back moves away from the standard tropes of what we would later classify as the “rockumentary”. It captures a couple of onstage songs and even impromptu songwriting sessions (including a notable one where Dylan is clacking away at the typewriter while Baez works her own tunes on guitar), but it keeps its focus on Dylan himself.

We see Dylan with tour manager Bob Neuwirth happily chatting about some black-tie gala piano tune like its some groovy jive; Dylan making constant humorous swipes at new it-boy Donovan and; Dylan dismantling the errors written about him in the press (“‘He smokes 80 a day.’ God, I’m glad I’m not me.”). We also see Dylan exploding at his entire entourage over a drunk throwing a bottle in the street; challenging ill-informed critics trying to interview him over tired notions; his manager handling a hotel’s noise complaint, saying that he’s the manager of Dylan but he’s far from in charge of him. There is a brutal scene where Dylan rebuffs a request from Baez that they sing together. She internalizes that brutal rejection, but the look on her face betrays the deep hurt she feels.

Dylan would never be this exposed in film ever again, which is why in some of the included interview audio found of Dylan in 2000, he admits that it’s really more his manager’s movie than it is his own. While another attempt was made at making a Dylan-centric film afterwards (including Dylan trying his own hand at directing, which, like fellow future auteur Prince, proved ill-advised), nothing can catch the strange, enigmatic charm that Dont Look Back still holds, ultimately proving to be more of a tone poem about a famous musician than it is a documentary outright. Given that it’s Dylan who’s the subject, however, such a treatment is fitting, even if it’s questionable as to whether the end product is satisfying on an emotional level.

This DVD being a Criterion release, there’s a nearly endless supply of supplemental material, including not one but two separate amalgams of outtakes from the same shoot (“65 Revisited” and “Snapshots from the Tour”, the former of which has a surprise appearance by Nico), a lively audio commentary with Pennebaker and Neuwirth (much of which is quoted in the essay booklet by Robert Polito), and several new interviews with the likes of Patti Smith and Griel Marcus. The most satisfying of all these extras, however, is a 30-minute documentary about Pennebaker’s history as a filmmaker and his growth through the years, with Pennebaker again being kind and amazed that all of this happened, still radiating an enthusiasm for his medium which is spellbinding to witness.

Also included is the aforementioned short “Baby”, his stunning cityscape-set-to-music short “Daybreak Express”, which, like “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, challenges the notion of being the first-ever music video proper, and “Lambert & Co.”, which features a vocal group auditioning for a major label. Included in the 30 minute Pennebaker short are clips from his other works, which tease the viewer with glimpses of his proto-Dont Look Back experiment “Jane”, as a young Jane Fonda prepares for the opening night of a play, as well as clips and excerpts from Pennebaker’s other accepted rock masterpiece, Monterey Pop.

Few people would ever question Dont Look Back‘s bonafides: its place in the cannon of rock films is merely accepted, and decades after the fact, few films have come close to matching its otherworldly style. In the pantheon of films centered around Dylan, only 2005’s Martin Scorsese epic No Direction Home comes close to matching Dont Look Backs‘s breadth and impact, but no where else would we ever see the type of Dylan who could, when pressed by a journalist about what his “real message” is, fire an off-the-cuff witticism like “Keep a good head and always carry a lightbulb!”

Moments like these are where Dont Look Back‘s magic lies, and it’s just as engaging to watch now, nearly a half-century after its initial release.

Dont Look Back

Rating:

Extras rating:

//related
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work. We are a wholly independent, women-owned, small company. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing, challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. PopMatters needs your help to keep publishing. Thank you.


//comments
//Mixed media
//Blogs

NYFF 2017: 'Mudbound'

// Notes from the Road

"Dee Rees’ churning and melodramatic epic follows two families in 1940s Mississippi, one black and one white, and the wars they fight abroad and at home.

READ the article