'Don't Look Back': Bob Dylan as Punk, Jerk and Genius

Has there ever been a more ideal subject for a cinema-verite film than Bob Dylan in 1965? As the ultimate unknowable character, Dylan invites multiple readings, interpretations, frames.

Don't Look Back

Director: D. A. Pennebaker
Cast: Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Bobby Neuwrith, Donovan
Distributor: Docurama
Studio: e One
Release date: 2011-04-26

In 1965, Bob Dylan was a man with nothing much left to prove. He had conquered the folk music scene, and was clearly its reigning monarch. He had dabbled a bit in electric music (side one of his Bringing it all Back Home offered a kind of folk-rock), and was toying with heading in that direction more conclusively with his next couple records. He was producing feverishly – his output in these years is nothing short of startling. And, between writing songs, poems, and even a novel of sorts, he was also performing concerts internationally even as he somehow kept on scratching with his pen.

Dylan was, simply, electric -- even before his music was amplified – maybe that explains his wild shock of hair by the mid-'60s?

But, of course, he was also famous. And fame can be a crushing burden for an artist. Only a few short years into his career, Dylan was already being treated as a kind of emissary from another planet, a creature beyond comprehension, an otherworldly giant among men. His adoring fans hung on his every word, sought out meaning in his lines of verse, debated the significance behind even his most casual gestures and glances and asides. Dylan was drowning in a sea of attention.

His only response was to react to all of this attention with ever more cryptic language, ever more caustic responses to critics, and ever more deliberate distance from the idea of his own significance. As Dylan’s most astute commentators have argued for the past several decades, around the mid-'60s the artist known as Bob Dylan became another version of “Bob Dylan”, affecting a public persona which hid him, like a mask (one of his favourite images), from the increasing glare of scrutiny and fan-driven obsession.

And this is why, above all, Don’t Look Back (shot in 1965 but released in 1967) is such a fascinating piece of film. A now-classic bit of cinema-vérité, D.A. Pennebaker’s 90-minute documentary remains today a frustrating, illuminating, confusing, and fleeting portrait of the artist as a young man. It tells no real story, follows no clear narrative path, and offers few clues as to what it might have to say about its subject. It remains, finally, a film of (not so much about) Bob Dylan as he toured England amid widespread adulation. Which is, one supposes, why it has become legendary not just among Dylan fans, but among film buffs, as well.

Here is perhaps the ultimate example of the cinema-vérité (or direct cinema) approach – a successful character study that is not scripted, not staged, and never driven by anything other than decisions made during post-production. There is little imposed upon the series of shots, series of “scenes”, that resembles order or structure. Rather, what we get is an hour and a half of moments, related to one another by virtue of the continued presence of several recurring faces (many of whom go unnamed since there are no titles when new people appear), and which amount to little more than what we decide they amount to. Such is the heaven-in-a-wildflower approach that defines cinema-vérité.

Has there ever been a more ideal subject for such a film than Bob Dylan in 1965? As the ultimate unknowable character, Dylan invites multiple readings, interpretations, frames. We cannot watch the film as a straightforward illumination of the man, since we don’t know who the man is by the end of the film. We learn so little. He gives us so little to learn from. He comes across as, by turns, arrogant, charming, wounded, conceited, clever, and mean. But he is also clearly playing to us, riffing on the very idea of his own stardom, his own “importance”. He is openly hostile to journalists who take him too seriously, and yet everything he does screams for us to take him even more seriously. He is a punk, he is a jerk. And he is a genius.

The moments where we can see him onstage, performing some of the most indelible songs ever written, are captivating and raw. Alone on these wide theatre stages, encircled by a single spotlight, with his acoustic guitar, his harmonica, and his irrepressible voice, “Bob Dylan” plays Bob Dylan’s songs and we can’t help but continue to watch, reminded as we are that despite the show of pretension and arrogance and obnoxiousness he is performing to insulate himself from an increasingly impossible existence as a folk hero, he is after all deserving of all of this praise, and more besides.

This Blu-Ray edition comes with a wealth of interesting material, including a full one-hour supplementary documentary (like a Don’t Look Back Pt. II) comprised of outtakes from the original film. This piece, entitled 65 Revisited has a few of its own moments of startling beauty, none more impressive than a scene in which we watch Dylan chatting with his friend as he saunters onto the stage to a sudden avalanche of applause. We can feel nothing but the goosebumps of stage-fright, of anxiety, of anticipation, and yet his face as he prepares himself for this step out of the darkness betrays nothing at all. A mask.


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