D A Pennebaker’s classic access-all-areas take on Bob Dylan’s 1965 tour of England is restored and repackaged in this Criterion release. John Wilby looks back at Dont Look Back
It’s been a busy time recently for Bob Dylan fans, with the release of the latest tranche of previously unissued material in the Bootleg Series (sampler here) in November last year, a new album of American standards in May, and I think there was something else, um, what wa– oh, yeah, he won a Nobel Prize. But to the main event: this month sees the release of the Criterion Collection anniversary edition of Dont Look Back, the fly-on-the-wall documentary by D A Pennebaker of Dylan’s May 1965 tour of England. Opening with the famous cue-card take accompanying ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ (which served as the trailer), the film follows the folk/pop/rock/whatever singer for 11 days of concerts, train rides, car journeys, meetings with and mobbings by fans, impromptu hotel room guitar duels, obfuscatory press interviews, and several instances of extreme piano abuse (I’m not including Dylan’s technique in this tally). Accompanied by tour manager/sidekick Bob Neuwirth, warble-voiced folk diva and former lover Joan Baez, and a cast of managers, producers, friends, musicians and hangers-on, Dylan rushes through the monochromatic English backdrop as if he would rather be somewhere else, playing something different, all the while jokingly pursued by the fey existential ‘threat’ of Donovan, the ghost of folksingers past. The film is a pioneering example of the music documentary genre produced at a point in Dylan’s career and, some would argue, popular culture in general, just before it exploded everywhere and got gloriously messy.
“It looks like a porn movie,” says critic Greil Marcus in conversation with Pennebaker in one of the many extras, referring to the filmmaker’s distribution problems which were eventually alleviated by running the 16mm print in an adult theatre in Los Angeles for nearly a year until enough money was recouped for a 35mm print. You could argue that most porn movies are at least better lit, but the rather seedy griminess of Dont Look Back is part of its verité allure. You can be damn sure most of these scenes weren’t set up. Marcus also alludes to the voyeuristic aspect of Pennebaker’s technique – minimal direction, just point and shoot. The director’s revolutionary homemade hand-held cameras allowed him and his associates to remain unobtrusive; Dylan himself in another extra maintains that after a while he was oblivious to the filming, although Neuwirth makes the telling point in an interview with Pennebaker that everyone involved was inescapably conscious of their role in the process, both in front of and behind the lens. The truth is somewhere in between: there is undoubtedly a fair amount of acting up and fooling about, but also enough brief flashes of discomfort or insight to convince the viewer of a voyeuristic verisimilitude. The look of pain and bitterness that passes across Alan Price’s face when he’s explaining to Dylan that he’s left The Animals, the palpable menace of the hotel room scene when a furious Dylan attempts to find out who drunkenly threw a glass from the window to the street below – these are the real deal. In fact, a section of the latter scene was cut from the TV version of the movie, consisting of some slurred effing and jeffing and what genuinely looks like the moment just before the start of a brawl. By comparison the journalistic put-downs, as entertaining and/or cruel as they are (depending on your tolerance for asinine questions on the one hand and smart-aleck answers on the other), appear stagey. Pennebaker’s at his best when reacting in and to the moment, reaching for the visual equivalent of ‘that thin, wild mercury sound’ which was to be Dylan’s musical ambition over the coming months.
There are also some great comic moments, including the Spinal Tap-esque scurrying through basement corridors in an attempt to leave Manchester’s Free Trade Hall, and the meeting in Newcastle with the High Sheriff’s Lady and her three sons, two of whom appear to be called Stephen, at which Neuwirth gives her a faulty harmonica and she notes that Dylan sometimes writes his own songs. Stephen no. 2 is pissing himself laughing throughout. It’s easy to take Dont Look Back too seriously, as everyone took Dylan too seriously at the time. Throughout his career he’s been quick to puncture his own myth, to maintain that he has no special message, that he just gets up there and plays. As slyly disingenuous as this is, it’s worth bearing in mind that the film is a portrait of a 23-year-old trying to have a bit of fun during the downtime of a busy tour schedule, and that his moments of cruelty are usually born of exhaustion, frustration or pre-gig nerves. And for all the clever repartee and nihilistic posing, he’s quite tender with his younger fans. (It’s odd watching this again after 30 years: when I first saw it, Dylan was a hero and could do no wrong; as I got older, he seemed more of a snotty brat abusing his privilege; now he’s just a kid harmlessly goofing around. My Back Pages indeed.)
The package of extras in this Criterion edition is as generous as you would expect. Some aren’t new, others have been produced especially for the 50th anniversary. There is 65 Revisited, over an hour of footage not included in the original, a lot of it full concert performances illustrating Pennebaker’s original intention that this was to have been largely a concert movie. There’s a commentary by Neuwirth and Pennebaker, which is cosy and fun rather than particularly insightful, and also a rather good interview between the two. Also worth watching are the short documentary about Pennebaker’s work, and a few of his earlier short films including Daybreak Express and Dave. It’s a handsome and exhaustive package that helps place Dont Look Back in its proper context within Pennebaker’s career. What I want now, please, my appetite whetted by the extras, is the full release along with unseen footage of Eat The Document, Pennebaker’s disastrous ‘collaboration’ with Dylan on his 1966 tour. In colour, with The Hawks (soon to be The Band) in full throttle, the clips that have been released are spellbinding stuff. The music can be sampled on the 1966 Live at the ‘Royal Albert Hall’ album (actually recorded at the Manchester Free Trade Hall) in the Bootleg Series, a monumental recording with its own extensive mythology (don’t get me started).* But it’s relevant as a point of reference, only 12 months after the Dont Look Back tour, that shows just how far Dylan was about to take his live performances, and how quickly they would change.
That’s the thing with Dont Look Back. It’s completely out of time musically, with the irony that its documentary style is an attempt to capture the fleeting moment of performance, both on and off the stage. For a start, Dylan’s singing songs from his second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, largely recorded in 1962. Okay, nothing odd about that, until you realise it only began its UK chart run at the end of May 1964. Essentially, the British public was always a couple of years behind in its awareness of where Dylan was at, although it worked enthusiastically to catch up: his second through to fifth albums all reached their highest chart positions during the month of the tour. Musically, however, Dylan had moved on long before, and this was to be his last acoustic-only tour. He tears through the performances of his earlier work, including a criminally hasty rendition of ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’, while backstage he noodles through prototypes of his new compositions, as yet unshaped. That summer would see the electric ‘betrayal’ of the Newport Folk Festival and the release of Highway 61 Revisited, followed just nine months later by Blonde on Blonde. Almost exactly a year to the day after the Manchester gig of 1965, the “bearded boys and lank-haired girls” of Dont Look Back who had politely suggested they didn’t much care for ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ were catcalling and shouting “Judas!” at a Dylan who had wholly repudiated the imposed role of folky messiah, defiantly showcasing his new material and adapting his old, while telling the band to “play it fuckin’ loud”. So Dont Look Back is a portrait of an artist’s work that had moved on before it had time to take root. The movie itself didn’t get a cinema release until 1967, by which time all the intervening fuss and glory had also passed. Dylan was by then in semi-retirement in Woodstock reinventing American music (again) in a basement with The Band, while Pennebaker was filming the maelstrom Dylan had helped unleash, at the Monterey Pop Festival. In comparison with the candy-coloured phantasmagoria of Monterey Pop, the greyscale aesthetic of Dont Look Back looks like it was from a previous generation, and the clanging irony of the title proclaims its intrinsic function as a retrospect. But perhaps this historical dissonance has helped preserve the importance of Pennebaker’s document of an artist changing almost too fast for the camera.
As for the Nobel, about which Dylan appears, shall we say, diffident, perhaps he’ll quote his own reaction from Dont Look Back on receiving an award for best-selling folk record, released a lifetime ago: “I just don’t want it. Tell ‘em to give it to Donovan.”
* Forthcoming next month is a 36-CD box set of the entirety of the recordings from the 1966 world tour. Perhaps not just one for the completists, eh, Santa?