In a relatively infamous review, a film critic from the
Atlanta Journal dismissively sniffed
that Dont Look Back (that’s not a typo, there is, mysteriously, no apostrophe
in the title) was little more than “the neighborhood’s biggest brat blowing his
nose for ninety minutes.” This harsh
sentiment was echoed by a critic from the Cleveland
Plains Dealer who added the film was “certainly not for moviegoers who
bathe and/or shave.” Time, of course,
has proven such histrionic appraisals of this very significant film to be entirely
wide of the mark. Most film scholars now
regard Donn Allen (D.A.) Pennebaker’s gritty and grainy opus as the first true masterwork
of rock music documentary filmmaking.
Though some of the earliest reviews were clearly nonplussed
with Pennebaker’s maverick “direct cinema” style of filmmaking, most of the critical
scorn was reserved for the movie’s principal figure, Bob Dylan. Even such early believers as Israel G. “Izzy”
Young, a folk-music enthusiast who took a chance in November of 1961 and chose
to produce Dylan’s first New York City concert, thought Dont Look Back, “A sad
event. Dylan surrounded by machinations,
appearing wherever he is told to, and resenting it. He is abusive to interviewers. Why? He didn’t have to agree to it.”
In defense of his detractors, both friendly and
antagonistic, it is true that few of Dylan’s Dont Look Back challengers are
spared the artist’s stony silence or mocking ridicule. In the course of the film the strikingly
young but already revered folksinger appears, at any given time, to be aloof,
condescending, or downright rude to those who might dare touch the hem. The devoted pilgrims, uncomprehending
journalists, and dullards who crowd and distract the musician in dressing rooms,
hotel suites, press conferences or out on the street are ceremoniously – and
sometimes painfully – put-on or put-off by this enfant terrible. Pennebaker’s
shoulder-held 16mm newsreel camera is seemingly always at the ready to capture every
glorious – and cringe-worthy - moment for posterity, all in a dispassionate and
non-judgmental manner. Since his two-camera
team rolled nearly continuously, Dylan himself opines on a supplement from this
magnificent new Blu-ray issue from Criterion, “After awhile you didn’t notice [the
What Dylan’s harshest critics totally miss is that the
singer’s perceived boorishness is reflexively defensive; it’s his dilettantish
but not too un-understandable coping mechanism to navigate the maelstrom encircling
him. Throughout Dont Look Back, the camera
establishes - in stark black and white imagery- that by 1965 Dylan was already caught
uncomfortably in the cross-hairs of the emerging culture-war. Dylan’s gift at word-play and his brilliant,
thoughtful songs brought him deserved attention; but they also managed, perhaps
accidentally, to tap into the zeitgeist of the brimming ‘60’s revolution. The singer’s mysterious persona, his wounded
singing-style, his elemental guitar-playing, and his haunting word-images were not
simply embraced. They were soon imbedded into the psyches of those most
deeply moved: academics, politicos, folk-music aficionados, devoted followers
and gossipy news gatherers. Viewing this
phenomenon through the prism of today’s prevalent cynicism is difficult; it’s not
easily explainable why Dylan’s most ardent admirers expected that this skinny, twenty-four
year old youngster – one with less than optimal social skills no less– had the
ability to impart wisdom befitting that of an ancient, wizened sage. Throughout the film the singer is pressed to share
the secrets of the universe that everyone presumes he’s holding close to his
chest. Though Dylan makes several
sincere attempts to explain, “I’m just a guitar player. That’s all…,” his protestations go unheeded.
There is one archival flashback near the film’s
beginning that provides a window of context for such deification. Upon a BBC journalist’s query “How did it all
begin for you, Bob?,” Pennebaker flashes to a civil rights rally where – in a
strikingly invasive full screen and spit-flicking close-up – Dylan brays out
the verses to one of his best “finger-pointing” songs, “Only a Pawn in their
Game.” The song, which would see issue
a half-year later on his seminal The
Times They Are A-Changin’ album, brashly charges not only the genuine
assassin of civil rights leader Medgar Evers, but a morally corrupt police
force, government officials, and court justices as malleable co-conspirators to
the murder. To the best of my knowledge,
this is the only footage in Dont Look Back that is not the product of
Pennebaker’s own set of voyeuristic cameras.
The rally footage came courtesy of Edmund Emshwiller, a
celebrated visual artist and illustrator who would dabble in experimental
filmmaking in the early 1960s. Carrying
along a single 16mm wind-up Bolex camera, Emshwiller followed a troupe of
Greenwich Village folk-singing activists (Dylan, Pete Seeger, Theodore Bikel,
and the Freedom Singers) in July of 1963 to a Voter Registration Rally on the
farm of Silas Magee in Greenwood, Mississippi. Emshwiller’s resulting short film, Streets of Greenwood, a reference to
the small town that was, at the time, a hotbed of racial discrimination and
KKK-vigilante violence, would, sadly, not see wide release. Pete Seeger would later suggest it was likely
Dylan’s inclusion in the finished experimental-film that doomed Streets of
Greenwood to near-oblivion. He was
An extremely limited release of this obscure agit-prop short
film had, reportedly, been blocked by Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman. Grossman was a major figure in the early
1960s folk-music revival, a tough and calculating business manager by
reputation; his table stable of clients would eventually include Peter, Paul,
and Mary, Janis Joplin, Odetta, Ian and Sylvia, Phil Ochs, and Richie Havens
amongst others. In 1962, Dylan signed a
ten-year exclusive contract with Grossman, an opportunistic move that in three
years time would swiftly transform the scruffy singer from little-known folksinger
to pop-music icon. It was also a
temporary alliance of strong personalities predestined to end acrimoniously.
There was a moment of unintentional symbolism captured in the rough Greenwood film – a generational passing of the torch if you will - when Dylan roughly pick-strums “Only a Pawn in their Game” on a 12-string guitar borrowed from friend and old leftie Pete Seeger. It was the sort of image that would have made Grossman bristle. The problem was that by 1965, the righteous Bob Dylan we see performing at Greenwood was already a ghost, an artist evolving fast, shedding old personas and musical styles in the process. By 1964, Dylan’s original songs were changing in style and content. He was no longer writing the Woody Guthrie-style polemical diatribes that brought him to the attention of Seeger and the old-lefties editing such folk music magazines as Sing Out! and Broadside. Neither interested in nor responsible for buying into the “Spokesman of his Generation” nonsense of which he was tagged, Grossman, with Dylan’s tacit agreement, was busily cultivating a new, more non-political, persona for his client.
Always a voracious reader, Dylan had befriended such poets as Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, immersing himself in the works of the Beats, the existentialists and of such poets as Verlaine and Rimbaud. He was also beginning to experiment with chemicals. The change in his writing style from the political to the personal was reflected in such new multi-layered works as “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” and “Gates of Eden.” This was the transitive Bob Dylan that was so expertly captured by D.A. Pennebaker in Dont Look Back.
It was Grossman that initially approached Pennebaker and associate Richard Leacock about the possibility of filming segments of his client’s impending eight-concert tour of England in late April and early May of 1965. Though well known in New York coffeehouse circles and a bit beyond, Dylan had not yet achieved any formidable pop-culture status. Both Leacock and Pennebaker admitted to be being entirely unfamiliar with Dylan’s work prior to the Grossman visit; and when informed they would be expected to foot the production expenses, the filmmaker’s nearly refused the assignment. But once a parcel of Dylan’s albums for Columbia arrived in their office, Pennebaker was immediately intrigued. He saw this mysterious Bob Dylan as a Lord Byron-type character, a karmic poet-gypsy with a rough-hewn voice of the ages.
The timing was right for such a project. Pennebaker had already been exploring the possibility of engaging in a music-documentary film, having already mulled (and abandoned) the notion of making films on either the Rolling Stones of England and or on America’s own folk-music diva Joan Baez. Though he hadn’t much of a pedigree with music-related films, in 1953 he had premiered his very first film, Daybreak Express, a five-minute short featuring the music of jazz-great Duke Ellington. When he and Dylan eventually met at Greenwich Village’s Cedar Tavern in the spring of 1965, the two hit it off immediately. The formal contract, penciled on the rear of a cocktail napkin during the discussion, had disintegrated by night’s end so final terms had to be consummated with a handshake.
It was at that meeting in the tavern when Dylan asked Pennebaker what he thought of his idea of holding up lyric cards to promote his new single “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” The song was to be issued as a pop single the very same month that Dylan’s tour of England would commence. The 100% rock n’ roll song, arguably Dylan’s first, would outrage the sacrosanct folkies who had pigeonholed the artist as their generation’s flame keeper of the dusty, one-man-with-a-guitar Woody Guthrie legacy. The single would be extracted from Dylan’s most recent LP, Bringing It All Back Home, a half rock n’ roll/half-acoustic album that, to this day, remains one of his best wrought.
The now famous “Subterranean Homesick Blues” title card sequence, which inarguably kicks off Dont Look Back with a bang, was actually filmed on three separate occasions: the most famous of these is the “official” and iconic sequence staged in an alley aside London’s Savoy Hotel. There was a second attempt on the hotel’s rooftop but this idea was abandoned as strong winds were blowing the title-cards out of Dylan’s arms. A third attempt, filmed in the garden of the Savoy, had to be scrubbed when police arrived to interrupt filming as proper permits had not been arranged. All three versions are now available, for the very first time, on the Criterion release.
Though not a concert film by any stretch of the definition (there are no complete live performances featured in the final cut of the released version) the glimpses Pennebaker offers are powerful. There are plenty of extended captures of Dylan on stage with guitar and harmonica, a fragile and solitary figure standing in silhouette amidst a hazy spotlight. Longtime fans of Dont Look Back do occasionally find it frustrating to know the transcendent rendering of “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” or “To Ramona” they’re so enjoying will soon cut away to a shot of street traffic or a similar diversion. Near the film’s denouement, Pennebaker, at long last, rewards Dylan’s fans for their patience with some extraordinary extended performances of his (then) newest songs: “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” “Gates of Eden,” and “Love Minus Zero/No Limit.” The Criterion release also features an essential 65 minute co-feature, “65 Revisited” as a supplement. This film, cobbled together from outtakes of the 1965 tour, offers further extended versions of on-stage performances of such songs as “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” and “Mr. Tambourine Man.” There are also wonderful fly-on-the-wall private backstage moments: Dylan on piano working out arrangements of such new songs as “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry,” “If You Gotta Go, Go Now,” and “I’ll Keep it with Mine.”
Though Dylan has surely earned his reputation as a caustic recluse, his earliest critics were misinformed regarding his occasional bursts of cruelty. It’s not necessarily a fait accompli that Dylan harbored the soul of a curmudgeon. It becomes increasingly obvious as Dont Look Back unspools that he’s not a crank; more often than not he’s a gentle and soft-spoken soul with those he perceives haven’t come to him with an agenda. For those that do… Well, it soon becomes obvious he simply is not at all interested in indulging anyone in their fantasies or those who project their own visions on him. He’s actually a pretty funny guy, for the most part, with a good sense of whimsy. At a hastily arranged airport press conference upon his arrival in London, Dylan is bluntly asked by a reporter “What is your real message?” “Keep a good head and always carry a light bulb,” he answers with a smile. His response is only semi-absurd. He is, after all, cradling the gift of an enormous display-case light-bulb prop he was proffered, very oddly, upon disembarkation. Yes, Dylan surely doles out some rough medicine to several of his more memorable victims in Dont Look Back, most notably to the “Science Student” from Newcastle and, perhaps most famously, to the unfortunate correspondent from TIME magazine. Though these scenes have been deemed unnecessarily cruel in the eyes of many, these infamously combative segments are never less than completely riveting.
What should be of great interest to anyone with an artistic bent is that Dylan seemingly wastes no time. While tour companions and friends idle away the empty pre-sound-check or post-concert hours by sociably chatting and partying and drinking, Dylan keeps himself mostly insular and busy amidst the clamor: he occasionally throws in a comment or two over his shoulder, almost as if only to prove that he’s still engaged in whatever they’re discussing. But mostly he sits silently with his back to everyone. He clacks out new songs and verse on a portable typewriter, practices his guitar, reads through countless newspapers and magazines, fingers piano riffs on backstage uprights, works out the melodies of new songs. Dylan would later compose the lyric, “Lost time is not found again,” and there’s plenty of evidence in Dont Look Back to suggest he has lived his entire life with that immutable truth in mind.
Though principal filming began in London on April 26, 1965 and would wrap cyclically on May 9th in that same city, following the editing sessions back home in New York City Pennebaker admits to having difficulty finding someone to distribute the completed film. It was only when the theater owner of the Presidio in San Francisco, a venue mostly known for its programming of pornographic films, gambled and continuously ran a 16mm print of Dont Look Back to a worshipful audience of blossoming flower children. With his earnings from the nearly year-long run of Bay area screenings, Pennebaker managed to finance a 35mm blow-up and get his masterpiece the measure of national exposure it so deserved.
Interestingly, the national release of the film would fill what would be an otherwise empty period for Dylan’s fans. At the zenith of his popular-music fame, the singer would disappear from public view following reports of a mysterious motorcycle crash in late July of 1966. He would not perform again on stage in a full-concert setting until a one-shot engagement was arranged on August 31, 1969 and then not again until he resumed touring on January 3, 1974. If you were a Bob Dylan fan (circa 1967-1973), and unlucky not to be present at one of his too rare and too brief guest appearances, a screening of Dont Look Back was mostly all that was available to you during those lean years. Of course the Bob Dylan of 1965 that was captured in this film no longer existed. In 1969, the restless Dylan had switched personas once again. He was no longer a folksinger or a rock n’ roll artist: he was now Bob Dylan, country gentleman. “He not busy being born is busy dying,” was how he would put it.
Dont Look Back is not a new addition to the shelf of Dylan studies. The film has seen several issues on Laserdisc, VHS, and DVD. Prior to this Criterion bells-and-whistles Blu-Ray release, the most recent was a deluxe set issued by Docurama and distributed by New Video. This 2006 release featured not only the complete film but a dizzying assortment of extras as well: full version audio tracks of several concert songs, an interview with Pennebaker, a commentary track, an alternate take of the “Subterranean Homesick Blues” cue-card sequence, discographies, the film’s original trailer, and even a reprint of the 1968 Ballantine Books tie-in paperback.
With the exception of the aforementioned paperback, this new and magnificent Criterion release ports over the entirety of the digital content of the Docurama release, while offering a stellar array of splendid new supplements unique to this issue. There’s a fascinating conversation between Dylan’s road manager Bob Neuwirth and Pennebaker, the pair recalling both Dylan’s 1965 tour and the filmmaker’s subsequent work on such ground breaking rock documentaries as “Monterey Pop.” There’s also “D.A. Pennebaker: It Starts With Music,” a near half-hour study of the director’s contributions to independent filmmaking. The set also generously includes three of his earliest short films as bonuses. There’s also a highly entertaining entry filmed in August 2015 that features punk-rock songstress (and Dylan acolyte) Patti Smith. She enthusiastically reminisces about the effect that Bob Dylan’s music and Don’t Look Back had on her own life and career. The troubadour’s own thoughts on the film are represented in audio snippets extracted from director Martin Scorcese’s own celebrated Dylan documentary No Direction Home. Rock and culture writer-critic Greil Marcus and Pennebaker sit down for an interesting 2010 discussion on the making of and legacy of the film. The set also features an interesting booklet of rare photographs and interesting notes courtesy of poet and academic Robert Polito. The feature itself is presented in a superb restored 4K digital transfer. It’s offered here in its original aspect ratio of 1:37:1, and with original monaural sound (uncompressed) from the original quarter-inch magnetic masters.
One of the new Criterion supplements that will be of great interest to Dylan fans is a twenty-five minute entry titled “Snapshots from the Tour.” This selection contains even more previously unissued outtakes from Dont Look Back that have been languishing in the Pennebaker archives. My favorite “new” moment comes via, of all people, Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman. Amongst Dylan’s most rabid fans, Grossman is often cast as villain, a shrewd and calculating businessman with only minor or tangential interest in the art or the artist. Having not known the man, I can’t say with certainty if such characterization is fair or not. But I was impressed by Grossman’s 1965 response to someone who half-whispers a backstage query to him. Does he think this Bob Dylan fellow might have staying power as a pop-music cash cow? “He’ll remain important, not popular,” Grossman answers with Solomon-like profundity.
(Hank Reineke is a scholar of American folk music and author of "Ramblin' Jack: The Never-Ending Highway" and "Arlo Guthrie: The Warner/Reprise Years.")