D. A. Pennebaker on Getting to Know Bob Dylan

“I always thought of musicians as being the saints of our time,” says documentary filmmaker D. A. Pennebaker in a recent interview for the New York Times on the subject of his 1967 vérité portrait of Bob Dylan Dont Look Back. “They live for music, and nothing else is interesting to them.” The iconoclastic musician at the heart of Pennebaker’s groundbreaking documentary, who was born on this day in 1941 in Duluth, Minnesota, has spent an astonishing number of his seventy-five years living for music. Pennebaker’s film focuses on a pivotal moment in Dylan’s musical life, capturing the mid-sixties period when Dylan began to break through as a pop music star, as well as offering an intimate and candid look into the usually shrouded private life of the young musician.

In his conversation with writer David Itzkoff, Pennebaker explains that although he’d been hired to make a promotional film for Dylan’s tour, it was the soul of the young man behind the music that fascinated him. “In listening to the way he talked to people, I got intrigued by the way he spoke—by the way he used language,” says Pennebaker. “He uses the same words, the same language we all learned in high school. But he uses it slightly differently. I was intrigued by his Byronic quality. I decided I wasn’t going to make a music film at all. I was going to make a film about this person. I thought, years from now, people will want to know what he was like.”

He goes on to talk about shooting the iconic opening video, set to “Subterranean Homesick Blues”—Dylan had suggested the idea of doing a video with him tossing off cards of the song’s lyrics during their first meeting, and Pennebaker enthusiastically agreed. After skirting cops in the garden of a hotel, they moved the production into the alley, “where there were no cops, and we did it just one time, and we just stuck a tape recorder in front of Dylan and it played the song. We had done the signs the night before, and Donovan had helped—Donovan was a very good artist, it turns out—and Joan Baez. I think I’d even done some, but I can’t remember which ones.”

Read the interview in full over at the Times for more about the nature of capturing an artist on film, along with some other great memories of Pennebaker’s from his time on tour with Dylan.

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