Grainy, spectral, often just dark, Dont Look Back at its most opaque can suggest a parallel planet of gorgeous phantom talkers, all voices ready for their close-ups, Mr. Pennebaker.
Dont Look Back (1967) isn’t a concert film, rarely—perhaps frustratingly—staging more than clipped teasers of ingenious songs, Dylan alternately weary and enthralling. Dont Look Back is not a documentary either, seldom—also maybe frustratingly—even identifying anyone among the nobodies and somebodies Dylan charmed into the vortex of his interchangeable hotel suites, hired cars, and dressing rooms. And despite the mischief—antic press conferences (“My real message? Keep a good head and always carry a lightbulb”), hip pranks (“Donovan, our target. He’s our target for tomorrow”), witless officialdom (“Who is in charge of this room?”), surreal concert escapes (“Will you get that girl off our car, please?”), Magoo-ish hacks (“Your name, please?” “Joan Baez.” “I didn’t recognize you, I’m sorry . . . It’s nice to see you. I’ve been looking for you all day”), giggly schoolkids (“Do you have any brothers or sisters?”)—Dont Look Back, except for the bravura “Subterranean Homesick Blues” cue-card intro, could never be mistaken for Richard Lester pop (A Hard Day’s Month?).
So what exactly is it? And now, fifty years on, what beyond the obvious—“I greet you at the beginning of a great career, which yet must have had a long foreground somewhere for such a start,” as Emerson wrote Whitman upon reading Leaves of Grass—remains the enduring lure, the persistent thrill, of D. A. Pennebaker’s Bob Dylan film?
A clue, for me anyway, hides in a sly story Pennebaker seems to enjoy recounting about how Dont Look Back secured a distributor—two years after the seven-city, eight-show spring 1965 British acoustic tour captured in the film. Enjoys recounting, I’m guessing, because the comparison the story proposes at first sounds preposterous and ironic but ultimately is so apt you recognize that it’s inescapable. “I had a hard time getting people to look at it, much less buy it,” Pennebaker summed up for me recently. “Making a film is like building a car in your backyard. You make it, and it’s beautiful, and then what do you do with it? The idea of selling a film, a nonprofessional film you made on your own, is kind of ludicrous. At the time, I didn’t understand that. I was very naive. There were two or three distributors in New York. I’d get them to look at the first reel, and by the second reel they were gone. I realized I would have a hard time getting it shown, but I knew there was an audience for it. I knew there were people who wanted to know who the hell Dylan was, just as I had.”
Then, Pennebaker continued, “one day, a guy came to me and said, ‘I understand you have a film I should look at.’ I was willing to show it to anyone at that point. So he came up and looked at it, and after, he said, ‘It’s just what I’m looking for—it looks like a porn film, but it’s not.’ He had a whole big string of porn houses all over the West, and I think he was trying to get out of the business, because of his wife or something. He gave it the largest theater he had, the Presidio in San Francisco. I might never have gotten it distributed if it hadn’t been for that guy.”
Whether a vintage stag film or the first official rock bootleg, Dont Look Back circulates the illicit, the forbidden, and the secret through every shadowy, glorious off-kilter frame. No matter what the shifting cast, setting, or situation, we feel over and over that we were not meant to see or hear any of this. Business—Albert Grossman, Dylan’s manager, and impresario Tito Burns play the BBC against Granada, Tito earnestly confiding that “I’ll be with Albert within ten minutes or so” as the two tycoons laugh, brood, and scheme across from each other. Media—a Manchester Guardian reporter files his histrionic review by phone, and we experience raw interviews with Dylan, variously risible and revelatory, instead of just the edited final stories. Backstage—the boredom and anxiety of waiting to perform, the heart-attack jolt of walking onstage, and the casual or imperial visitors, spanning from a teenage electric Dylan cover band to the high sheriff’s lady and her three awkward sons, two of them apparently named Stephen. Hotels and road trips—the camera drifts past Sally Grossman, Marianne Faithfull, Allen Ginsberg, Fred Perry, Tom Wilson, and John Mayall (all uncredited), finds Dylan and Baez harmonizing Hank Williams songs, and watches Dylan explode after an anonymous drunk flings a glass into the street. Friendships and male rivalries—Dylan is tender to Alan Price, who has just left the Animals, conspiratorial around Bob Neuwirth, complimentary to Derroll Adams, and devastates Donovan (at Donovan’s own request!) in a venomous song pissing contest (“To Sing for You” vs. “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”). Intimate life—Baez masking her loss and anger when Dylan will not invite her to sing with him, although they just toured America together in March; her caustic rewriting of “Baby Blue” in the car to nick Dylan’s attention (“Yonder stands your orphan with his gun / Crying like a banana in the sun”); and her graceful shutting of a hotel room door after Neuwirth taunts her and Dylan continues typing. Even creative work—most films, documentary or feature, are helpless at intimating an artist’s work, but Pennebaker comfortably shows Dylan over a typewriter, rhythmically knocking out prose that would eventually be published as “Alternatives to College,” and banging and humming at an upright piano to draft a new song, while producer Wilson sprawls next to him.
Bob Dylan would not prove so casual around a movie camera again. “He always knew I was filming,” Pennebaker told me, “but we got along pretty well. I don’t think he had any idea what the film would be, that it was going to be a feature film, playing in theaters. I think he and probably Albert thought it would just be some stuff for promoting records.”
“Direct” or “observational” cinema—at least as Pennebaker advanced the conceit in 1965—can seem either so simple as to mock explanation or such an intricate magic trick that no explanation will untangle the riddles. “It’s just me with a camera on my shoulder, or in my lap,” he said, and “someone near me holding a mic” (usually Jones Alk, with Bob Van Dyke recording the stage shows). “We were not very noticeable, and Dylan always had a lot of things going on.” Pennebaker’s camera was small—under fifteen pounds—and so extensively jury-rigged as to appear homemade. “It didn’t look professional—I’m not sure what people made of it. It didn’t look like I was really making a movie. Our whole methodology was to have a portable camera you could take anywhere. You didn’t have to put up any lights, the film was pretty fast, and there was a good lab to process it in London. We weren’t the center of the process; we were hardly visible. You wanted it to be real life; you didn’t want to betray the process. If you didn’t get something, you didn’t get it.”
Prior to Dont Look Back, Pennebaker had already edged along the borders of the avant-garde and the archival. With Robert Drew, Richard Leacock, and Albert Maysles, he’d developed Primary (1960) and Crisis (1963), among other political documentaries for Time-Life and ABC News, but his earliest film, shot in 1953, was a short experimental city symphony, Daybreak Express, cued to the Duke Ellington tune, in the tradition of Man with a Movie Camera, Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, and Manhatta. During the early sixties, Pennebaker created a trio of portrait films—Jane (1962), You’re Nobody Till Somebody Loves You (1964), and Lambert & Co. (1964)—that stylistically can now strike you as sketches toward Dont Look Back. Each drops a viewer into a charged moment that is essentially left to speak for itself. “You’re like a person outside a window, watching,” Pennebaker said. “You see what’s going on, but you don’t have to know about what makes it happen. People can figure that out later, or not.”
How much “real life” Direct Cinema ultimately absorbs was a debate aggressively contested by detractors and partisans then, and also now. But—and maybe here is where his magic and riddles originate—Pennebaker clearly was gifted at intuiting the dramas around highly performative people and focusing them at oblique angles to their main activity: Jane Fonda rehearsing a Broadway play, The Fun Couple, that we never see; celebrity hairdresser Monti Rock III joining Timothy Leary and Nena von Schlebrügge for their wedding; and, especially, musician Dave Lambert auditioning his vocal group at RCA.
“After we left Life, there was no business,” Pennebaker recalled. “Anything we could shoot in a day, we would try to shoot. Dave was a friend. This was a new group he put together—and he was trying to get RCA to put out a single record. What interested me was that he was, like, the wild musician, and he was going to the tame musicians. He was able to move around it and do what he did, but it wasn’t where he felt comfortable. It didn’t get released, they broke up, and that was the end of it. Later, when he got killed, helping someone change a tire on the Merritt [Parkway], we edited it for his wake. A reporter was there from German television, I think, and wondered if he could get a copy to take back to Europe. I started getting letters from people asking where they could buy the record. I realized that if we hadn’t shot it, it wouldn’t exist. We had made a piece of music exist just by filming it. That really gave me a sense of what I should be doing.”
Along with their resistance of narrative cues and explanatory guidance, the Fonda and Lambert films also suggest Pennebaker was interested in the practices of creation more than artistic results—hence, too, the backstage strategy of Dont Look Back, rather than presenting a complete concert. “Albert invited me to film the tour, and I said yes. In the course of it, and as I spent a lot of time watching and listening to him talk, I thought, This is not a singer I am going to make a promotional film about. This is a poet. I’d like to see what a poet is like in real life. Byron always was a big favorite of mine as a persona. I thought it was like being with Byron when he went to Italy. That period when Byron and Shelley lived in Pisa after they left Switzerland—wouldn’t it have been great to have been able to make a film of that? I thought, I don’t want to make a music film, I want to make a film about a poet. So I’ll cut the music; I won’t ever have a complete song. Cutting the music will just get me to the next scene faster.”
If Dylan was Lord Byron to Pennebaker, the poet himself may not have been so sure of his own “persona” that spring of 1965. Slotting the film (as opposed to the British tour) within any viable Dylan chronology is dodgy, as the two-year delay between shooting and release means that Dont Look Back has always been out of sync with his life, public and private. Although Pennebaker’s images probably are still—a full half century later—what many earthlings see when they hear the words “Bob Dylan,” the film, despite the insistently farsighted title, was retrospective from the outset. By May 1967, as viewers entered the Presidio on Chestnut Street, the dazed twenty-three-year-old who at the close of Dont Look Back babbles to Neuwirth and Grossman, “God, I feel like I’ve been through some kind
of . . . thing, man”—well, by then, he had “been through” many more things.
Roughly a month after that Albert Hall car ride, he began recording Highway 61 Revisited, and released its first single, “Like a Rolling Stone,” on July 20. The night of July 25, he was booed at Newport when he took the stage for an electric set with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band—and he would be booed for the next year across North America, Australia, and Europe. On November 22, he married a friend of Sally Grossman’s, Sara Lownds, who, incidentally, worked at Time-Life with Pennebaker, and they started a family. Early in 1966, he recorded Blonde on Blonde in Nashville. That July, he suffered a motorcycle accident and withdrew into Woodstock, New York, with Sara and their children. Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson, and Robbie Robertson, members of Dylan’s touring band, moved to the area around February of 1967, and the recordings eventually styled The Basement Tapes soon flowed, initially at Dylan’s Byrdcliffe Colony home and then at Big Pink. By September, when Dont Look Back finally premiered in New York, Dylan was about to return to Nashville for John Wesley Harding. For his followers, popular music, American culture, and world politics, all his aesthetic and personal decisions approached the status of epochal revolutions, with the singer at once catalyst and symbol. As Greil Marcus has written, “Bob Dylan seemed less to occupy a turning point in cultural space and time than to be that turning point.”
Pennebaker also was very much of that revolutionary instant, in his way, and on the move. Under Dylan’s direction, he shot the 1966 electric English tour for a planned ABC episode of Stage ’66—which never aired and eventually became the 1971 film Eat the Document—and the month after Dont Look Back launched in San Francisco, he filmed the Monterey International Pop Festival (1967’s Monterey Pop). Over the coming decades, alongside collaborations with Jean-Luc Godard, Norman Mailer, and David Bowie, Pennebaker directed Original Cast Album: Company (1970), Town Bloody Hall (1971), The Energy War (1977), and The War Room (1993), an inside observation of the 1992 Clinton campaign, all but the first with his longtime codirector Chris Hegedus. Dylan once argued that he “played all the folk songs with a rock-and-roll attitude,” and although Pennebaker was more than fifteen years older, there is a lot of rock-and-roll attitude in his films about music and politics. For both artists, the route from outlier to classic would be circuitous and certain. In a 2014 Sight & Sound directors’ poll, Dont Look Back tied Man of Aran and Nanook of the North for eighth place among the greatest documentaries ever made.
All this lay months, years ahead. But even inside its 1965 moment, Dont Look Back blurred multiple time zones—to Dylan’s ambivalence and rue. When he landed in London, his acoustic-electric hybrid album, Bringing It All Back Home, was in stores. But night after night, he performed only acoustically, six songs from BIABH, along with others from one, two, three albums back. The onstage contrast in his engagement and dynamism of attack between the new—“It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” “Gates of Eden,” “Love Minus Zero/No Limit,” “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”—and the familiar—“The Times They Are A-Changin’”—is instructive. Dylan sometimes can seem to be squirming through a bygone version of himself, just before he would blow everything up and start over.
“Last spring, I guess I was going to quit singing,” he would tell Nat Hentoff about the 1965 English tour. “I was very drained, and the way things were going, it was a very draggy situation—I mean, when you do “Everybody Loves You for Your Black Eye” and, meanwhile, the back of your head is caving in . . . Anyway, I was playing a lot of songs I didn’t want to play. I was singing words I didn’t really want to sing.” And—as Dylan continued to another interviewer—“I’d literally quit, singing and playing—I found myself writing this song, this story, this long piece of vomit, twenty pages long, and out of it I took ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ and made it as a single. And I’d never written anything like that before, and it suddenly came to me that this is what I should do.”
So, is Dont Look Back the “real” Bob Dylan? Pennebaker later described him as “acting out his own life.” A divergent Dylan emerges from nearly every scene. Is he kind, cruel, whip-smart, tedious, diligent, careless, stoic, petulant, wily, guileless, shy, arrogant, aggressive, and androgynous? Yes, he is, or seems to be—and it’s a slight stroll from Pennebaker to the multiple Bob Dylans of Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There, forty years later.
Is Direct Cinema, then, “real life”? Who can say? Still, Dont Look Back manages to insinuate surprisingly much of Dylan’s improbable future from mere whiffs and spoors. His electric shows are implicit in his exhilarated walk past a guitar-store window and respectful listening to a solemn young rock cover band, just as the jeers that will greet him hover in a fan’s offhand dismissal of “Subterranean Homesick Blues”—“But it just doesn’t sound like you. It sounds as if you’re having a good old laugh.” Won’t those Hank Williams tunes he duets with Baez at the Savoy spur The Basement Tapes, John Wesley Harding, Nashville Skyline, and Self Portrait? Doesn’t Grossman’s double-dealing portend his alleged shenanigans with Dylan’s own finances? Even Baez’s silent exit from his life—after she leaves Dylan’s room, they would not perform together again until the Rolling Thunder Revue.
As we traded analogues for his early cinema, Pennebaker credited the chaos-and-contingency, medley-of-voices dialogue in William Gaddis’s novels, notably JR, for the elusive textures of Dont Look Back. “The closest person to what I see we were doing was Bill Gaddis—Gaddis, who was my roommate when I first came to New York. The idea of not saying who’s talking so you have to figure it out is kind of like having a film with no narration or explanation. Everything is what you see.” (Fascinatingly, though, in a 1956 note to himself, Gaddis credited conversations with Pennebaker, among others, for JR.)
But Dylan himself, of course, and the new songs he was writing in 1965 also parallel Pennebaker’s film about him. The mix of rawness and formal sophistication, innovation and tradition, the work simultaneously shaped and improvised, and the trust in immediacy, a detail, and the moment for revelation. Their mutual suspicion of definition and interpretation—Dylan’s amusement at his neofabulist press coverage (“‘Puffing heavily on his cigarette, he smokes eighty a day.’ God, I’m glad I’m not me”) and his fierce media critique to Time reporter Horace Freeland Judson can’t be disentangled from Pennebaker’s own assault on the conventional documentary that is at the core of his cinema. After all, he experienced Time-Life from the inside.
The Dylan of Dont Look Back answers questions only with more difficult questions. Just as slippery, Pennebaker—after a BBC correspondent asks, “How did it all begin for you, Bob?”—doesn’t cut to a plummy adolescent anecdote but instead to borrowed footage of Dylan singing three years earlier at a voter registration rally in Greenwood, Mississippi: yet another Dylan, the regression evidently infinite. The disappearing act Pennebaker desired as a filmmaker is matched by the “progressive self-annihilation” in Dylan’s music that Ellen Willis had already observed in 1967. “As his songs have become more introspective, the introspections have become more impersonal, the confidences of a no-man without past or future.”
Out of sync, prophetic, timeless: the film overrides stock retorts. Or, as Pennebaker put it to me, “You just follow along, and you watch,” as though recasting Dylan’s surly challenge in Dont Look Back to “science student” Terry Ellis, then reporting for his college newspaper—“Do you ever just be quiet? Be silent and just watch and don’t say one word?”—into the necessary and inevitable voice of history. “Basically, it’s a process of watching, that’s all.”
Robert Polito’s books include the poetry collection Hollywood & God as well as Farber on Film: The Complete Film Writings of Manny Farber. Savage Art, his biography of noir novelist Jim Thompson, received the National Book Critics Circle Award.