50 Years Ago This Week – Dont Look Back
May 17, 1967 marked the release of Bob Dylan: Dont Look Back (that’s right, no apostrophe). A documentary of Dylan’s 1965 visit to England, cameras followed as the twenty-four year old Bob performed in proper concerts and on informal occasions, held forth in sparring matches with a clueless, often hostile establishment press, bantered with his entourage, and jousted with many. The movie was shot and edited under the supervision of legendary documentarian D. A. Pennebaker, who over his long career would go on to direct Monterrey Pop, Town Bloody Hall, and The War Room. (Of these, Town Bloody Hall is an essential document for anyone with an interest in the seventies—the record of a rather raucous evening in which Norman Mailer rather admirably debated his feminist critics, and got his butt kicked.)
Dont Look Back, daring and experimental with its hand-held camera work, harsh lighting, grainy appearance and uncompromising black and white, was a manifestation of the deep synergy between rock music, then scaling previously unimagined heights, and the emerging New American Cinema. Dylan, like the Beatles, was taken with the prospect of exploring the possibilities film had to offer. And what unfolds onscreen is neither fiction nor non-fiction; as Andrew Sarris observed, we were not seeing “Dylan as he really is, whatever that means, but rather how Bob Dylan responds to the role imposed on him by the camera.” Blurring this distinction further, Keith Beattie reports that Dylan affiliate Bob Neuwirth played an especially important “performative” role in the film (making behavioral choices with the camera and the “scene” in mind)—which, of course is always present to some extent once cameras appear, but at first glance might seem contrary to the philosophy implicit to “documentary” film. But the French New Wave (and their followers in the New Hollywood) rejected such overconfident clarity, and wanted nothing more than to dive into that blurry, contested space between documentary and fiction (a commitment seen most clearly in the cinema of Haskell Wexler).
Ultimately, documentary is storytelling, offering a narrative and presenting a point of view. Which is not to say that Pennebaker’s cameras never surprise the participants, or that the players are invariably attentive to it. Rather, he captures a version of events, which the act of documenting influences, but which nevertheless records some remarkable business. Invaluable for many reasons, Dont Look Back is most impressive for what it doesn’t shy away from, commonly showing an unflattering picture of Bob, capturing the (often implicitly) shabby treatment of Joan Baez, and featuring the looming, not-un-sinister presence of manager Albert Grossman (the alleged subject of Dylan’s subsequent lament “Dear Landlord” on John Wesley Harding).
Ironically, the weakest link in the movie is . . . the music. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s still Dylan, and when he dusts off an impromptu rendition of “It’s all over now, baby blue” in a hotel room, you are reminded that he was operating at, well, just a whole other level (that’s a Hattie Carol reference, you can look it up). But in the concert performances in Dont Look Back, Dylan seems, occasionally, bored. And that’s possibly because he was. It would be the last tour in which Bob would limit himself exclusively to solo acoustic sets. Dylan’s last English show was recorded on June 1. On the fifteenth, he would be in the studio to begin the sessions that would yield Highway 61 Revisited; on July 25 he would plug in at the Newport Folk Festival, and the rest, of course, was history.
Which is why the 1966 British tour was so much better. Pennebaker was on hand for that one as well—he accompanied the group to help out with a documentary called Eat the Document, which was never released. But a good bit of that astonishing footage from the ’66 tour eventually made it into Martin Scorsese’s essential Bob-Doc, No Direction Home.
Subterranean Homesick Blues (That’s Allen Ginsberg in the Background)
Eager Crowds in England . . .
But Bob Needs His Big Lightbulb to Fend off a Hostile Press
Joan Baez sings "Love is Just a Four Letter Word" . . .
While Dylan Works on a New Song
Manager Grossman Dictates the Terms