Don't Look Back (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Thomas Doherty

Bob Dylan, with Allen Ginsberg in the background, from Don't Look Back's famous opening

Bob Dylan, with Allen Ginsberg in the background, from Don't Look Back's famous opening

A film by D.A. Pennebaker; produced by Albert Grossman, John Court, and Leacock-Pennebaker, Inc.; sound by Jones Alk; concert sound by J. Robert Van Dyke; featuring Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Donovan, Alan Price, Albert Grossman, and Bob Neuwirth. Blu-ray, B&W, 96 min., plus extras, 1967. A Docurama Films release.

Shot in grainy black-and-white 16mm and trailing more cigarette fumes than a postwar film noir, D. A. Pennebaker’s rough but not unpolished documentary of Bob Dylan’s epochal 1965 tour of England reverses the trajectory of the transatlantic cross-pollination that jump-started pop music in the wake of Beatlemania, with the cocky Yank sticking it to the fuddy-duddy Brits in a deeply American tale of rugged individualism and self-made manhood, straight from the Midwest heartland by way of the East Village. The title comes from a remark by Satchel Paige, the Negro League baseball pitcher (“Don’t look back. Someone might be gaining on you”), a motto that nails Dylan’s paranoid style of American popstardom, which assumes that another hot young rookie is out there itching to take your place in the lineup and that only forward motion—in art, persona, and relationships—can beat back the competition. Or, as the bard sings, he not busy being born is busy dying.

A new release on Blu-ray gives the iPod generation the opportunity to, well, look back. Of course, no one really needs to watch Don’t Look Back on Blu-ray, a format that gussies up the punk esthetic of on-the-run, fly-on-the-wall cinema. The 2000 DVD release, which debuted a commentary track with director Pennebaker and tour road manager and film costar Bob Neuwirth, and the 2007 deluxe DVD release, which included a neat booklet and a bonus disc comprised of 65 Revisited, originally released in 2006, a stitched-together compilation of outtakes from Don’t Look Back, have already filled the availability gap nicely.

The ramshackle 65 Revisited is well worth a gander, and the commentary track a listen. The outtakes show Dylan more amused and bemused than the prickly customer in the final cut, especially in his relationship with fans, where he seems to relish his first brush with hot popstar fame as opposed to cool folkie regard. The commentary on the new disc—as on Don’t Look Back—features Pennebaker and Neuwirth calling the play-by-play, offering fresh insights and cool lines and a lot of antiquarian information for tech geeks on the practice of pre-video documentary photography. Neuwirth is particularly illuminating and pithy, recalling the “pin-drop” silence during Dylan’s performances, observing how the “industrial strength charisma” of the artist commands the screen during the film’s extended single-setup long takes, and snarkily noting how Pennebaker’s transfixed attention on his star in concert contrasts with the frenzied camera movement favored by today’s directors whose audiences have “the attention span of puppies.” The bonus disc also includes a pleasant enough conversation with Pennebaker and rock critic emeritus Greil Marcus. Besides commerce, the main reason for the repackaging is to sucker in us obsessive Dylanologists with the lure of a new morsel of info, an alternate take, an unturned page from Bob’s back pages.

Revisiting Don’t Look Back is like hanging out again with a beloved but aggravating old friend. A cold opening jump-starts the action with the scratchy twang of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and a single-shot, proto-music video featuring Dylan flipping away cue cards scrawled with fragments of lyrics. By 1967, the date of the film’s release, the artist had already cast off the postfolk, just-slipping-into-leather but still preelectric model that Pennebaker preserved in amber. Armed with only a harmonica, an acoustic guitar, and voice, Dylan takes on all comers: riffing on reporters from Time who know something is happening but don’t know what it is (“I’m just as good a singer as Caruso,” he cracks, “and I can hold my breath three times as long if I wanted to”), charming the High Sheriff’s Lady, sparring with drunken louts, and taking regal command of the stage of the Royal Albert Hall. In the star’s immediate orbit, manager Albert Grossman curses at uptight hotel managers and angles for percentages; former Animals keyboardist Alan Price plays piano and gulps makeshift screwdrivers; and Joan Baez sends out some very un-Quaker-like vibes as her former protégé and sort-of boyfriend leaves her stranded on the tarmac while he rockets into a new stratosphere of fame and awe.

Cameraman-director Pennebaker was a graduate of NBC’s fabled “Drew Unit,” the team of documentarians coached by Robert Drew, a pioneer of cinéma vérité (aka “direct cinema” in its stateside incarnation), a bargain-basement format that is also a bargain with the fates: Please, God, let something interesting happen as I document this concert, person, or crisis (as opposed to the reality-show contract where the filmmakers conspire to make something interesting happen). In a cinematic equivalent of the Prime Directive inStar Trek, you may not interfere with the natural evolution of the species in your camera lens. On the commentary track for 65 Revisited, Pennebaker mulls the luck of the draw in the cinéma-vérité contract, observing that he probably missed ninety percent of the action but getting “ten percent seemed to me not bad” considering “that nobody had ever even gotten one percent before.” Actually, the rock-doc gods smiled on Pennebaker, blessing him with spell after spell of serendipitous magic and only a few glitches (when the film in your magazine runs out, so does the action, hence the truncated version of Dylan’s searing protest song, “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”). Fortunately, concert tours also possess a natural three-act structure—setup, performance, and downtime. The backstage machinations and morning-after lulls are paced by the transporting highs of the on-stage performances.

So innovative and iconic are the touchstone scenes and esthetic devices in Don’t Look Back—how many times has the flash-card opening been imitated, homaged, and mocked?—that what once had the shock of the new is now apt to play like a swirl of rock-doc clichés: airport fans, hotel rooms, limo backseats, hangers-on, teenyboppers, and the hand-held camera following the performer from the green room, down the corridors, and into the lights of the stage and the roar of the crowd (a sequence parodied in Rob Reiner’s classic mock-doc This Is Spinal Tap [1984] when the heavy-metal head bangers get lost backstage). Most startling in its time was the defacing of the carefully honed image of the star, whose close-ups in the old Hollywood studio system were always without blemish, no hair out of place. Dylan is arrogant, angry, burnt out, stoned, acidic, and—most of all—hypnotically, blazingly brilliant.

The narrative spine of Don’t Look Back is not the tour but the looming duel between Dylan and the Scottish minstrel Donovan. From the minute America’s fastest gun lands at Heathrow, he has the kid in his crosshairs. “Who’s this Donovan?,” he snarls, resentful at the headline competition. The fateful showdown comes in a crowded hotel room. Donovan takes his best shot, crooning “To Sing for You” in a sweet tenor, strumming serenely on his guitar. Doting on the local boy, the Brits seated around the room smile smugly. “That’s a nice song, man,” snickers Dylan.

Remember, in the 1960s, Donovan was no slouch, pop hit wise: he would crack the top ten more often than Dylan. But when Dylan pulls “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” out of his holster—debuting the whiplash lyrics to the stunned room—Donovan is shot dead on Main Street. Pennebaker’s camera pans over to Donovan’s stricken face; he is as blown away as anyone else in the room. It is a cruel and heartbreaking moment, a cold lesson in the difference between talent and genius. Dylan never looked back.

Thomas Doherty is a professor of American Studies at Brandeis University and the author of numerous books on film.

To purchase Don’t Look Back, click here.

Copyright © 2011 by Cineaste Publishers, Inc.