#49 — Don’t Look Back (D.A. Pennebaker, 1967)
When Bob Dylan toured England in 1965, he had five officially released albums to his credit, including the just-issued Bringing It All Back Home. He was a star, but not yet an icon. He was arguably already the voice of his generation–casually termed a “folk great” by the defining likes of Billboard–but there was no reason to necessarily believe that he would change absolutely everything about pop music to such a degree that he would eventually be honored in every way imaginable. At the time, his theft of Dylan Thomas’s name could still be viewed as the height of self-aggrandizing hubris, where now it is, if thought of at all, a personal repositioning of stature that significantly understates his impact and influence (Dylanesque belongs to the Minnesotan, not the Welshman). It is a fascinating moment for the culture, right before the boundaries were demolished and redrawn time and again throughout the late sixties. It was a time when a runty poet with a shrub of dark hair and a raspy, nasally voice could could be greeted with swooning adoration by teenyboppers well-trained by Elvis and the Beatles to scream their throbbing hearts out. Thankfully, it was also a time when filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker thought it might be worth his time to train a camera on Dylan for a spell.
The resulting film, Don’t Look Back, is arguably the most essential document of rock ‘n’ roll permanently setting its talons deep into the broader culture. Pennebaker was an essential driver of the Direct Cinema movement, endeavoring to capture life at its most unadorned, getting one of his earliest credits working on the fascinating, defiantly unpolished 1960 short documentary Primary, which traced the dueling efforts of John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey to win the Wisconsin primary. It was Pennebaker’s later effort making a jazz documentary that inspired Albert Grossman, Dylan’s manager, to recruit him to film the U.K. tour. Perhaps unskilled in the sort of finessing of creative personnel that defines such projects today, they allowed Pennebaker unfettered access. He emerged with neither hagiography nor take down, delivering instead something that feels richly of the moment. Dont Look Back is rife with the promise, ambition, combativeness and understated wonder that now seems inevitably connected with the shifting plates of the sixties as it played out across the music scene. Dylan is not the tour guide, even though he literally holds signs that can be reasonably seen as a verbal road map to the era’s tumult in the memorable opening sequence set to “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” He’s merely another bemused tourist.
But he’s also a surly, superior tourist too. He levels his disdain at a variety of hapless souls who try to slip into his orbit, reserving his cruelest parry for the folk singer Donovan, hailed by many as the British Dylan, who performs for the visiting troubadour in a hotel room. Dylan damns Donovan with faint praise before answering with his own composition, the sublime “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” leaving his across-the-pond counterpart thoroughly bested and chastened. It’s a remarkably devastating moment, shearing off any veneer of idyllic camaraderie to the music world and hammering home that no matter how much posturing of altruism may take place, it is first and foremost a business that these performers are engaged in, a capitalistic competition where mercy is practiced only by those who never get a chance to play the Royal Albert Hall. By refusing to insert himself into the proceedings through the heavy-handedness of aggressive technique, Pennebaker captures that deflating truth and many more like it. The carpet, too, was moving under all of them. In Dont Look Now, Pennebaker wisely, carefully traced its relentless progress.