Bob Dylan: Don't Look Back,
directed by D.A. Pennebaker
(Docurama, 1967)

Don't Look Back is the best documentary about a musician on tour I've ever seen. I can't say enough good things about it, and it is all I can do to imagine how D.A. Pennebaker simultaneously made himself so ubiquitous and so unnoticed as to capture the remarkable footage that he got on Dylan's British tour.

From the incredible sequence of Joan Baez warbling the then-unreleased "Percy's Song" even as Dylan is pounding out the lyrics on his typewriter, to the revealing moments where Dylan manager Albert Grossman quite literally strong-arms the BBC into a high-paying deal for a TV appearance, to Dylan himself, at the most accessible he would ever be in his long career, alternately jousting and jesting with the British press, most of whom seem completely ignorant as to which is the jest and which is the joust.

Dylan again, talking with a fan who doesn't like "Subterranean Homesick Blues" because "it just doesn't sound like you" (which was the whole point of the song), and Dylan's gritted-teeth reply: "Oh, I see what kind of person you are right away." Dylan yet again, in an astonishingly unguarded moment, bawling out everyone in his hotel room over a wineglass Alan Price dropped out of the window, acting like the only responsible adult in a kindergarten class ... and when a drunken Price admits the deed, Dylan lets him have it with both barrels and finally kicks him out, despite Price having been Dylan's best friend in England throughout the entire film.

In fact, a lot of this movie is about Dylan shedding elements of his persona, entourage and his music. Bringing It All Back Home had just been released when Don't Look Back was being filmed, and the album served as a harbinger of the rock 'n' roll shift Dylan's music was about to take. It's far more noticeable in hindsight, of course, but in this film you see Dylan breaking his ties with his folkie past.

"Subterranean Homesick Blues" being shown right up front is a dead giveaway, but you may miss some of the more subtle signs: His growing disenchantment with being pegged as a folkie, evidenced by both the abovementioned reaction to his fans and his jests/jousts with the press, both harbingers of the surreal "anti-interviews" Dylan would give over the next few years. Then there is the slow disintegration of his relationship with Baez -- there is a moment about midway through Don't Look Back when Joan walks out of Dylan's hotel room ... and though she appears later in the film through the judicious use of editing, Baez has since admitted that that was the moment she walked out of Dylan's life. Another folk-music tie broken, as much by Dylan as by Baez (his near-indifference to her through much of the film is chilling).

There is also Dylan's discomfort with the "Donovan issue," both in being compared to Donovan and in meeting the guy. You can see the uncertainty all over Bob's face during this sequence, and the nicer he tries to be to Donovan -- who quite honestly shouldn't even be in the same room with Dylan -- the funnier the whole thing gets. Then there is Dylan's meeting with the president of Dylan's British fan club -- the bespectacled weedy fellow who looks like he just stepped whole and breathing out of the nightclub scene in A Hard Day's Night. Dylan's conversation with this guy is polite on the surface, but again, there are undertones of discomfort, even dislike, so palpable that they make you want to cringe.

Dylan is so clearly disenchanted with some aspects of his career, even though he puts on a game face and acts satisfied with what he's doing, that it's a wonder he didn't completely telegraph his shift to electric music. (Actually, he did -- it's just that most people were too blind to see it coming at the time.)

As I said above, the footage in this film is incredibly revealing. Never again would Dylan be so accessible, so honest and forthright, as he was in Don't Look Back -- and even here, as I've said, you can sense his withdrawal from that accessibility begin. How Pennebaker managed to capture all this intense, remarkable, human footage of Dylan & Co., without his subjects noticing or caring about how they came across, is beyond me. Few music documentaries, before or since, have had such verve, or such nerve, as to show their subjects in such a potentially-unflattering light (the only two I can think of that come anywhere close are Gimme Shelter, the Maysles Brothers' astonishing Stones/Altamont document, and Let It Be, the Beatles' on-film disintegration (and final live performance), which stupidly remains out of print). Don't Look Back does all that and more, never cheating, never prevaricating or retreating, always telling the truth. It was a rare achievement for its time, and a film that could never be made today.

book review by
Jay Whelan

27 November 2010

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