D.A. Pennebaker puts cinema verité on the map with his terrific up-close docu portrait of Bob Dylan as he runs from concert appearances to hotels, cutting up with his friends, practicing with Joan Baez and giving reporters grief. Criterion’s extras give us the best look yet at Pennebaker’s innovative approach: don’t direct, observe.
Dont Look Back
The Criterion Collection 786
1967 / B&W / 1:33 flat full frame / 96 min. / available through The Criterion Collection / Street Date November 24, 2015 / 39.95
Starring Bob Dylan, Donovan, Joan Baez, Alan Price, Albert Grossman
Cinematography Howard Alk, Jones Alk, D.A. Pennebaker
Production Designer James D. Bissell
Music performed by Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Donovan, Alan Price
Produced by John Court and Albert Grossman
Written, Edited and Directed by D.A. Pennebaker
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
“I am not a folk singer. Do not call me a folk singer.”
The man who turned pop music on to socially conscious poetry is one of those legendary icons that make such a loud noise in the world that they might pass on without the world getting a real look at them. Thanks to this film, Bob Dylan doesn’t have to be remembered as an aged rocker doing a Vincent Price imitation. Those of us who don’t read about rock ‘n’ roll and didn’t subscribe to Rolling Stone won’t be left out thanks to Criterion’s new Blu-ray: its extras concentrate more on the filmmaker than the subject.
The camera view follows the newly minted musical legend on the road. In 1965, Bob Dylan goes from one English city to another playing his last acoustic tour, with a small but colorful entourage in tow: Albert Grossman, his manager, Bob Neuwirth, a friend from the states, performers Joan Baez and the new-to-the scene Donovan, and recently-estranged Animals drummer Alan Price (O Lucky Man!). They practice, party, fend off reporters with elliptical questions, and deal with irate hotel personnel and drunken Northerners (sorry, Mr. Broughton). We see candid exchanges in which Grossman and another showbiz booker play telephone games to jack up the price on Dylan’s appearances. Snatches of music are heard in between Dylan’s frequent hectoring outbursts at journalists.
Dont Look Back (no apostrophe) is cinema verité in its original ’60s sense. The then-new 16mm cameras didn’t have to be physically attached to their sound-recorders, and faster film stocks could be used without lights. Filmmakers were able to follow their documentary subjects with ease, producing intimate hand-held moving-picture portraits. From the perspective of today, this is what A Hard Day’s Night seems to be doing, when in reality it’s just Richard Lester emulating the look of cinema verité. D.A. Pennebaker’s feature, filmed by invitation of Dylan’s manager, can be as crude as some of these films get. One view of Joan Baez singing in a hotel room is a grainy grey smear on a grainy black smear. Yet there are shots with three people, a cameraman and a driver crammed into a smallish English car that convey perfectly the feeling of ‘being there.’
Savant watched the film once, without preparation, and then listened to Pennebaker’s commentary, which fully answers one’s questions. Pennebaker is no distant filmmaking god, but a practical guy trying to express himself. He tells us that true verité objectivity was and is a myth. He and his one or two-person crew had to be present in crowded rooms with Dylan’s associates. They weren’t flies on the wall but participants. The way Dylan and his hipsters dominated the ‘scene,’ they’d have been tossed if the room thought they weren’t cool. There’s definitely a macho tone to the way he and his pals hold court: as Joan Baez makes an exit, somebody tries to shake her up with a crude comment about her supposedly see-through blouse.
Penn says the ‘actors’ directed the film more than he did. They were conscious of the camera and keen on providing cool ‘natural’ material for it. Dylan definitely performed, or as Pennebaker tells it, was ‘on’ every time the camera rolled. But most of us are ‘on’ in such circumstances, not just when a camera is rolling, but whenever we’re in public. By letting Dylan pull what little games he might, assuming he’s not completely lying to the camera, we do at least see a sincere portrait of how he thinks he sees himself.
The Dylan we do see is far from flattering. He’s sullen one moment and pushy the next. He openly baits reporters that ask vague questions in the vain hope of drawing him out, seemingly playing the bully on purpose, to create a conflict he can control. Dylan goes ballistic on a mild-mannered reporter, accusing him and the whole Time magazine commercial media world of being terrible phonies. He then flounders in stammering evasion when the reporter asks him what HE thinks the truth is. A ‘science student’ (identified as a music producer in later life) gets involved in one fairly fruitless exchange, where Dylan pretty much throws everything asked back in the kid’s face. The portrait of Dylan we eventually get is a little kinder. He’s not an abusive creep, but a poet that would rather not make casual small talk about his poetry. He needs publicity from the system, but his rebel persona requires that he challenge the system at all times. Curiously, when asked if he believes in God, his answer is an unqualified ‘no.’ If I’m not mistaken, Dylan did go through a total Born-again phase in the ’80s.
Also drifting through the film (according to the IMDB) are music celebrities John Mayall and Marianne Faithful, who Savant didn’t spot. I made one blonde sitting in an empty Albert Hall as Faithful, until the commentary informed me otherwise. Beat icon Allen Ginsberg shows up in dialogue and also appears in person standing by a garbage can in the background of the famous ‘flip the cue cards’ scene done to ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’. It was conceived as a proto-music video for use in the unsuccessful Scopitone movie jukeboxes of the day. A seemingly unexplained scene of Dylan singing on the back of a truck in America has always been a source of curiosity. Pennebaker clears up the question of its origin by telling us that it was from a voter registration rally in Mississippi, shot by the noted experimental filmmaker Ed Emshwiller (Relativity). Emshwiller heard Pennebaker was doing a Dylan movie, and just sent the film along with his blessings. Fat chance of anything like that happening today: “Yeah, it’s (superstar performer X). Use it if you wanna.”
Pennebaker couldn’t direct his ‘actors’ but the editing is definitely under his control. Pennebaker’s intent is to stay out of the way, to try where possible NOT to edit. Some of the more engrossing ‘scenes’ appear to take place in real time. He offers the observation that an extended shot of a grim-looking attendant at the Albert Hall opening some doors to a flood of somber, black-dressed Dylan fans ‘would have been cut by Time-Life.’ One priceless extended exchange shows a local honcho’s wife, ‘The Sheriff’s Lady’ dropping by to welcome Dylan to her town, and to personally invite him to her ‘mansion house’ on his next visit. In contrast to his almost combative relationship with everyone else, Dylan receives her meekly, like she was a rich aunt back in Wisconsin. He behaves like a total square gentleman in the face of her veddy proper manners. In reality this woman would probably sooner be flogged than have these grotty lowlifes set foot on her carpets. Her direct approach is disarming — Dylan’s roughshod technique with strangers is trumped by the matron’s traditional condescending ‘charm.’
The passage of time has made it easier to cut through the fog of Dylan’s mystique. Enigmatic? Unknowable? He’s a poet who puts his words into song, and to avoid being pigeonholed he acts aloof and offended when called a folk singer or a pop phenomenon. The clue to his uniqueness is that his concerts are not packed with screaming teenagers. The English audiences listen intently to his performances, as if some ultimate truth were being dispensed. When Dylan makes small talk between songs, he’s dishing out the same kind of patter that Dean Martin might, only in a purposely un-slick cool cat manner. He’s just a guy and not a guru. In one clip he makes an inside joke about Donovan being in the closet. Dylan has a very good handle on his image, and Dont Look Back is yet another chapter in the ’60s rise of the new media-driven celebrity.
The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray of Dont Look Back is a terrific in-depth study opportunity of a modern classic and the great innovator behind it. A new 4K transfer and digitally restored sound makes the show look better than ever. The improved tracks do wonders for what in original prints were at times fairly marginal-rough audio. We get a much better appreciation for Pennebaker’s skill and technique.
The extras expand on an old DVD from 2001. The Donn Pennebaker commentary from that old disc is present, as are new transfers of five uncut audio tracks of Dylan performing and an alternate flubbed take of the Cue Card scene. The new material gives us plenty to think about — new interviews with Pennebaker, Bob Neuwirth and Greil Marcus, and a featurette about Pennebaker’s first pictures. Three of them are presented intact and newly transferred. Pennebaker says that he found his style when he stopped trying to direct his film subjects, and merely observed them instead. Another four minute extra is an old Dylan interview piece illustrated with more outtakes from the film, while 2007’s 65 Revisited revives an hour of outtakes for a new feature documentary. More extras are listed below.
The entire film has subtitles now, which helps when some of the dialogue becomes hard to understand, even with the much-improved soundtrack.
At various places in the commentary and featurettes, Pennebaker explains that he liked doing films of performers because it was a way of capturing ephemeral lives and personalities on film that otherwise would be lost. In the 1960s a filmmaker could approach a subject for photo or film access directly and get an answer, either from the performer, or in this case his manager. I’d say that Woodstock changed that forever. The legal tangles behind recording and performing contracts make it so that giant corporations must do battle every time two stars would like to perform a duet. Pennebaker surely found that stars and their handlers soon demanded all rights to the final cut of the film and how it would be used, in addition to having official ownership and taking all the money. That’s the way anything in show business is now, power. Something like Monterey Pop would be almost impossible to put together now. George Harrison found that his Concert for Bangladesh was a total betrayal of his desire for the music industry to pool resources for charity aid: as soon as he got going, record companies demanded the lion’s share of any profits.
With help and corrections by Gordon Thomas.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Dont Look Back Blu-ray
Supplements: Audio commentary with Pennebaker and tour manager Bob Neuwirth; 65 Revisited, a 2006 documentary by Pennebaker using outtakes from the film; illustrated Dylan audio excerpt, New documentary about the evolution of Pennebaker’s filming style; Pennebaker’s early films Daybreak Express (1953), Baby (1954), and Lambert & Co. (1964); New conversation between Pennebaker and Neuwirth about their work together; Snapshots from the Tour, a new piece featuring never-before-seen outtakes from Dont Look Back. New interview with musician Patti Smith; Conversation between music critic Greil Marcus and Pennebaker from 2010; Trailer; illustrated booklet featuring an essay by critic and poet Robert Polito
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 23, 2015
Text © Copyright 2015 Glenn Erickson