Sunday, September 6, 2009

Don't Look Back

D.A. Pennebaker's seminal documentary Don't Look Back remains the startling work it was upon its release: not only a revolutionary cinema verité approach to a rock tour, but one of the most intimate glimpses possible of the perpetually elusive Bob Dylan. The film was made on Dylan's 1965 U.K. tour, a pivotal moment in his career, as he began to move away from the folk movement from which he'd emerged. He'd just released Bringing It All Back Home, which featured rock instrumentation on its second side, a source of some controversy among his rabid folkie fans — at one tour stop here, a couple of young schoolgirls nervously tell him that it doesn't sound like him, that it sounds like he's only goofing around. In fact, it was no joke. This would be Dylan's final acoustic tour, and when he returned to England in 1966 it was for the electric tour that yielded one outraged fan's accusing cry of "Judas," a legendary moment. Pennebaker couldn't have known all this was coming, but it must have been apparent that Dylan was poised on the brink of something. The film captures an artist in flux, trying on different identities, experimenting with a playful sensibility that sometimes bleeds over into perversity and willful obscurity.

What Pennebaker's restless camera captures, more than anything, is a man whose personality is always shifting; Dylan is almost always performing in some way, always trying on different guises, covering up what he's thinking with strings of non sequiturs, turning interviews back on the interviewers with probing, unanswerable questions of his own. Pennebaker's handheld camerawork is perfectly suited to examining such a slippery figure; when Dylan bobs and weaves, figuratively speaking, the camera is with him, subtly zooming in to probe the intricacies of his face, his expression, trying to reveal what might be hidden behind his ever-present dark sunglasses. What Pennebaker seems to find is a guy who contains multitudes, who's many different things at different times. In unguarded moments, he sometimes seems like a kid — Dylan was 24 at the time — hanging out with friends, goofing around, telling jokes. At one point, listening to a jazz band, Dylan and several friends don dark glasses and snap their fingers, aping beatniks, laughing as they drop "hip" phrases. The Dylan who appears in interviews is someone else altogether, confrontational and aggressive and gnomic in his pronouncements. In one of the film's most prolonged scenes, a British journalist comes into the dressing room before a show and finds himself drawn into a battle of wits with Dylan and his friends, who are constantly challenging the guy, asking him questions about himself, basically asking him to defend his very existence to them.

It's amazing, and reveals a certain antagonistic streak in Dylan, a tendency to go on the attack, to prevent anybody from understanding him or pinning down anything about him. Pennebaker, by simply observing, by letting his camera unobtrusively weave through the scene, getting a rough fly-on-the-wall perspective on the singer, arguably understands much more than almost anybody else who Dylan encounters over the course of this film. He gets Dylan's need for mystery, for myth, and recognizes it as a bit of an act. He's also perceptive enough to see a different Dylan, the charming, bashful young boy who's so polite with an older British woman who comes to pay her respects, enthusing about his songs and earnestly asking him to come stay at her country mansion. There's a moment, towards the end of a particularly ornery and provocative "interview" with a reporter from Time magazine, when Pennebaker's camera zooms in on Dylan's face, capturing the bemused, playful smile dancing across his features as he answers a few questions. It reveals his famed aggressiveness towards the press as a bit of a joke, a put-on, a game to create a certain persona — Dylan's having fun with it, enjoying the clash as a sport.

If Pennebaker's film is enlightening about Dylan the man, it remains even more worthwhile for its portrayal of Dylan the musician. In rehearsals, in ad-hoc jam sessions at house parties, on stage, in loose songwriting sessions at a piano, Dylan always seems utterly focused, utterly alive, never simply tossing something off. His energy and passion for his music is obvious. If the public Dylan was always changing, always playing games, there's something dead-serious about Dylan the musician, which made that schoolgirl crack about Bringing It All Back Home kind of sting; he shrugs it off with a joke but the annoyance shows through anyway. The film is alive with Dylan's music, with snippets of concert footage; he rarely gets to play a whole song through, but Pennebaker collages together more than enough music to capture what it was like to see Dylan live on this tour. He sings through the first three verses of "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" at one point, and Pennebaker films it in a closeup, because Dylan's face is very much alive when he sings, seething with the bitter irony of the lyrics. Dylan's best songs hurt, they're dangerous: the story of rich tobacco farmer William Zantzinger and poor maid Hattie Carroll is unforgettable to anyone who's heard it, because Dylan doesn't just tell the story, he brings its images to life, and he infuses it with the depth of his own outraged emotions. When he sings this song in Pennebaker's film, his face communicates everything that the lyrics do, the heartache and acute sense of injustice.

What's remarkable is that this is true even of Dylan's more elusive later songs, after he abandoned this kind of topical rant. The film closes with an equally heartfelt rendition of "Love Minus Zero/No Limits," one of Dylan's best songs from this era. Its poetic evocation of love isn't direct or representational like Dylan's earlier songs, and its images are figurative rather than visual, but it's obvious that it is no less deeply felt, that its emotions well from somewhere deep inside. The final moment of music in the film, the penultimate shot before a chatty, informal car ride, is accompanied by Pennebaker's most ostentatious camera move in the whole film. The camera, behind Dylan, floats aloft towards the high rafters of the theater, looking down at the musician within a small circle of pure white light at the edge of a dense darkness, and then the camera looks up, out at the house lights as the final notes of the harmonica fade away. It's a gorgeous moment, as mysterious and strangely poetic as anything in Dylan's songs. Pennebaker has a lyrical sense that's sometimes lost or ignored in his frenzied, off-the-cuff backstage camerawork, but that's readily apparent in his soulful closeups and the more formalist austerity with which he films Dylan's concert appearances.

Pennebaker is equally interested in Dylan's musicianship offstage, in the way any gathering with his friends might suddenly burst into song, with Dylan or Joan Baez or anyone else who happens to be around. (Though an interlude with Baez where she sings a few Dylan compositions inadvertently winds up as further proof of Dylan's artistry; despite her lilting, lovely voice, there's no escaping just how boring Baez is, how flat and lifeless her performance is, how lacking in Dylan's crucial energy and passion.) Pennebaker also evinces some curiosity about the character of Dylan's manager Albert Grossman, who with his bushy black eyebrows and big glasses and noncommittal expression is in some ways even more gnomic and inscrutable than Dylan himself: who knows what this guy is thinking? There's an enlightening scene where Pennebaker films the merciless negotiations Grossman conducts with several British promoters for a few shows, hammering away until he gets the tremendous sum he wants for Dylan. Throughout it all, Grossman shows no expression, no trace of anything; he's almost creepy, like a mob boss delivering ultimatums.

The point of the scene is obvious, of course, Pennebaker's not-exactly-revolutionary suggestion that it all comes down to commerce, that beneath all the artifice, on at least one level, Dylan's just another pop star. He's what the kids are listening to this month instead of the Beatles, as one newspaper article has it. That's part of it maybe, but Pennebaker seems to know it's only part, that there are many parts to Dylan, which is why Don't Look Back is structured as such a collage of public and private, performance and backstage, "in character" and out, rock star and folk singer and pop idol and just a guy enjoying himself and doing what he wants. All of these things are in Dylan, and all of these things are in Pennebaker's film as well.


Greg said...

I've always wanted to see this and never have. I always forget but now that you have reminded me again, and really heightened my interest, I'm going to see it. Really. I am.

Ed Howard said...

It's definitely as essential as its reputation suggests, especially for those who like Dylan -- and if I remember correctly from our last conversation about him, you do. It's just such a pivotal moment for Dylan's career, it's fascinating to get such an intimate look at what was going on around him at that point, right before he shocked everybody with the big electric concerts.

Kevin J. Olson said...

Great thoughts here, Ed. I really love Dylan's post-folk work (I still think "Highway 61 Revisited" is his best album and probably one of the five best albums ever released), and I love this doc.

I still prefer Scorsese's No Direction Home, however, because it allows us to see Dylan not as the brat that he seems to be in Pennebaker's film, but as the enigma he really is. In Scorsese's doc Allan Ginsburg has a great moment where he likens Dylan to a shaman -- able to convey his message of music through energy and movement that all seem to be released through the perfect release of breath into the microphone (of course that's a paraphrase...Ginsburg is much more articulate than that, hehe).

However, nothing can change the importance of Don't Look Back or other early rock documentaries like Festival or, obviously, Woodstock. I just like the more intimate approach to Scorsese's doc (he also gets about 180 more minutes to do it in) as it shows Dylan not as an aggressor, an unlikable musician who at 24 thinks he's the ultimate authority -- but it sees him as a boy who is out on the road being asked ridiculous questions by ridiculous people who don't even listen to his music...or by "fans" who think that music always has to sound the same.

He was given the label of "the voice of his generation" he never wanted to be, and I think that when he asked The Band to tour with him, and he was being called Judas...that's the moment when we see the real Dylan: a person who just wants to play the music that makes him happy. There's no obligation there.

Sorry for the digression...I just wanted to say that this is a great piece about a crucial moment in music history and Pennebaker's documentary is essential viewing (and Scorsese's is the perfect companion piece) for any fan of Dylan or just rock music in general.

Great essay, Ed.

Sam Juliano said...

I agree with Kevin on "Highway 61 Revisited" being Dylan's greatest album, but few serious Dylan fans (as opposed to rock fans) from this period seem to agree. It includes of course 'Like A Rolling Stone,' one of the greatets single tracks in the history of the rock era. I believe it edges out the Masles' GIMME SHELTER and Michael Wadleigh's WOODSTOCK. Of course a number of others in this accomplished genre could be added to a shortlist, including the Talking Heads's STOPR MAKING SENCE and Martin Scorsese's THE LAST WALTZ and his own Dylan work, NO DIRECTION HOME.
It's interesting that Pennebaker opts to use snippets from songs rather than entire tracks, in his effort to avoid a tediously chronological unfolding of concert pieces. OK, I see you actually allude to this yourself here:

"The film is alive with Dylan's music, with snippets of concert footage; he rarely gets to play a whole song through, but Pennebaker collages together more than enough music to capture what it was like to see Dylan live on this tour."

Anyway, what is ubiquitous in this film is the absence of the traditional archival and interview footage that is part of the large majority of these kind of films, but this is basically a "cinema verite" conscription of a rock tour - a point you bring out yourself in the first paragraph.

Needless to say, Dylan is shown as an egomaniac who is aloof, even antagonistic, (again a word you use in your review, as well as an admission that he comes off badly in interviews). The film also shows Dylan as obsessed with "chart standings" and of how his singles measure up to his musical competitors, one of whom, Donovan Leitch, who appears several times in the film, and who is actually a favorite of Dylan's.

Dylan's indeptedness to Woody Guthrie is broached in the song "Only A Pawn in Their Game" and as you do mention here in your stupendous essay (where you typically leave no stone unturned) his collaboration with Joan Baez --who accompanied him on the tour--on two Hank Williams songs results in the most emotional and sublime moments in the entire film.
As it turns out this is a great companion piece to Todd Haynes's masterpiece, I'M NOT THERE, which at some point would certainly get definitive treatment here at ONLY THE CINEMA.

Kevin J. Olson said...

What's most interesting about this doc and Scorsese's is how it shows that Dylan just rose above all of these already established folk heroes. And he really didn't even want to be in the scene. Sure, he channeled Woody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger and co. thought he was the next folk singer to lead the socially conscious music rebellion, but they didn't realize that he wasn't into what they did, even though he sang about.

In Pennebaker's doc you see poor Donovan sitting there wondering what happened to his popularity. In Scorsese's film you see Joan Baez, who undoubtedly more of a popular protest singer than Dylan was a first, wonder what happened to her friend who she invited on stage when he was starting out, but when he invited her along for that infamous tour, she realizes that he never had any intention of returning the favor. Just another sign that he was wanting to distance himself from the folk scene.

Another telling scene is when Baez relays stories about sit-ins and pickets and how everyone would ask her when Dylan was going to be there (or if he's going to be there) and she talks about how all she could do was laugh because he had never been to one of those sit-ins before, and he was never interested in marching or picketing or revolting -- he was just interested in making music.

He's such an enigmatic figure...a fascinating study for a documentary, and Pennebaker's and Scorsese's are both brilliant for different reasons.

Sam Juliano said...

As I stated in my initial post, I most assuredly would include the Scorsese among the greatest docs on Dylan, indeed in this entire sub-genre. However, I do give the Pennebaker a slight edge in both it's stylistic spontaneity and in it's uncanny frankness in culling insights from a situation that is potentially painted in a most unfavorable light. Neither Pennebaker nor his subjects are the least bit fazed, and that's rather remarkable.
Stylistically, Pennebaker employs the devices popularized by Richard Lester--the wild zooms, the hand-held camera and the (deliberately) crude editing and cutting. This was clearly a case where a style was also defining the way cinema informed a generation.

Kevin J. Olson said...

I hear ya, Sam. Pennebaker's style is definitely the more interesting of the two Dylan documentaries, but I prefer the subject matter of Scorsese's...which is a bit verbose, but always fascinating. Scorsese even borrows footage from Pennebaker's doc, as you know, so I don't think there is any doubt in Scorsese's mind that Pennebaker's experimental doc is of great importance when discussing Dylan.

Sam Juliano said...

And I hear you too Kevin. As always you make an excellent point there. As you said earlier these two really do make an unbeatable pair.

I trust you'll be signing my petition to have the talented proprietor of this site pen a comprehensive piece on I'M NOT THERE, right?

Ha! Maybe not this month, as it's a biggie for him, and he has the most major of events in his life at this time. Sound familiar, Kevin? LOL.

John said...

An excellent in-depth article on one of the great rock-docs of all time. Sam and Kevin pretty mention all the great films in this genre. If I lean toward Scorsese's No Direction Home, it is only because I am a die-hard Scorsese admirer. It semantics really. As for the Dylan albums mentioned Highway 61 Revisted , Bringing it All Back Home and Blonde on Blonde are masterpieces that should be in any serious collection.

Dave said...

I don't remember if this is actually in the original film or just in the outtakes released later... but I always get a kick out of the scene in the apartment where Donovan plays his song (which is actually very good) and gets polite applause. Then they hand the guitar to Dylan and he seems to just routinely whip off "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" and "Love Minus Zero/No Limit" and you then see Donovan's reaction... priceless. :)

I've been listening to A LOT of Dylan lately, so I'll also weigh in with my favorite album... BRINGING IT ALL BACK HOME. And I'll also agree that I slightly favor Scorsese's documentary, but this one is still a classic.

Kevin - I agree completely with your analysis about Dylan and his relationship with the folk community. They seemed to view him as absolutely being their next "chosen one" whereas Dylan was not elitist as many in that community could be -- he drew from everyone from Woody Guthrie, to Elvis, to Hank Williams, etc. And is there any great put-down song in the history of folk or rock music then the big middle finger he gave to the folk community with "Positively 4th Street"?

Ed Howard said...

Thanks for the substantive comments, everyone! I really need to see the Scorsese-produced film; I've seen parts of it but never the whole thing.

Kevin, I totally agree about the positioning of Dylan within the folk community. I think he sort of stumbled into folk because of the Guthrie influence and then started to feel like it was a trap holding him back a bit from what he'd really want to do. You can really see the flash of annoyance and melancholy in this film when those girls are telling him that the rock songs on Bringing It All Back Home are silly and jokey; that's where his interests lie at this point and he's starting to realize that he'll have to leave this scene behind if he wants to go there.

Sam, I actually wrote about the great I'm Not There back when it first came out.

Dave, I love that Donovan song too. It's really obvious in scenes like that, though, just how much of a whole other plane Dylan is on. Even in a relaxed, informal setting like that, he picks up a guitar and sings and it's DYLAN, just as much as if he was on stage or playing one of his records; it has as much passion and energy as anything he ever does.

Kevin J. Olson said...

I just thought of a moment from the Scorsese produced doc where young British teens are being interviewed about why they left the infamous Albert Hall concert after the first half acoustic set, and their response was that "they payed to see a folk singer, not a pop group."

It's sad that some people like to pigeon hole artists, and it's easy to see why Dylan would be so annoyed by it all. I love the response a fan says after they hear someone utter those lines, though, when they respond with "not too many pop groups sound like that."

You also had the moments where people were yelling "What happened to Woody Guthrie" at him...unable (or unwilling) to hear the brilliance of Subterranean Homesick Blues or Like a Rolling Stone because it wasn't what they expected from Dylan.

Anyway...just some thoughts that popped into my head after you mentioned that once scene with the two girls.

Ed Howard said...

All very true, Kevin: some people get so invested in the artists they like and then hate to see any change, as though it's a personal betrayal when a beloved artist does something new, something they maybe don't like as much. As much as people are always clamoring for something fresh, something new, most people are very conservative in their tastes, and respond to new things with distrust. Looking at it now, of course, it's baffling how the folkies didn't immediately grasp the brilliance of albums like Bringing It All Back Home or Highway 61 Revisited, two of the greatest rock albums ever made. I like Dylan's folkier stuff too -- especially Another Side and the later John Wesley Harding -- but those albums, and the live sets from around that time, are simply incendiary and provocative.

Joel Bocko said...

I love this movie - interesting and sympathetic (both towards Pennebaker and Dylan) treatment you give it here. Personally, I love Dylan - he's one of the great artists of the 20th century - but he seems inescapably to be an arrogant jerk in this movie. Heck, it's hard not to see why: he's a genius among bumbling fools, he's only 24 and the world is his oyster - but it's still hard to sympathize with him even as you kind of dig the nastiness. The journalist who stumbles in on him and his friends is really just a square college kid and the way Dylan and his hipster buds needle the guy reminds of me of the more clever high school bullies.

This is, of course, part of why I love the movie so: it's portrait of Dylan is unvarnished by hero-worship, even as the music and the mind get the respect they deserve. I got to see this at Film Forum in New York a few years ago, at a screening for which D.A. Pennebaker spoke afterwards. I asked him about the infamous Donovan scenes near the end - where the British folkie hangs out with Dylan in his hotel room and Dylan passive-aggressively shows him up by following Donovan's performance of a nice folk ballad with his own scorching delivery (with a smirk, no less) of "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue." Pennebaker's close-up of Donovan's uncertain features seems to seal the insult added to injury.

But Pennebaker claimed that he and Dylan had no ill intent, and that years later he ran into Donovan and asked, "I hope you didn't think we were making fun of you!" Supposedly, Donovan replied, "No that's all right - I thought I was taking the piss out of you guys!" (Not sure how that's possible, but it was a funny anecdote...)

Dave said...

MovieMan - You're right about the delivery from Dylan on "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue." Man... with that smirk on his face, it's obvious that he knows how good it is. It's the kind of arrogance that would likely annoy the hell out of you if you didn't much care for the guy displaying it.

Fortunately, I love Dylan, so it's quite a moment!

John said...

I highly recommend watching :The Other Side of the Mirror: Bob Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival" This is a look back at Dylan performances from 1963,1964 and 1965. It is a priceless vies of his metamorphosis from folk sing to his early days going electric. The change in Dylan and the audiences reaction is all there. There are no interviews or backstage banter, just performances by Dylan, Pete Seeger, and Joan Baez, alone and with Dylan. The film played at the New York Film Festival a couple of years ago.

Aaron said...

It's easy enough, in these torrent-ial times, to track down the unreleased sort-of-sequel, "Eat the Document" which was apparently edited by Dylan (and shot by Pennebaker). It captures Dylan a year later - the '66 footage from No Direction Home was culled from (mostly) outtakes. I prefer Eat the Document to Don't Look Back, but it will largely depend on your tolerance for Dylan's editing...

Ed Howard said...

Movie-Man, even though I'm an unabashed Dylan admirer myself, I agree with you that this film is refreshing for not engaging in awed hero worship. Pennebaker's perspective is much more distant, respectful of Dylan's artistry and the uniques pressures on him, but not ignoring the uglier aspects of the guy. What emerges is a very balanced portrayal of a man whose relationship to his fans, his music and his own fame is very complex and ambiguous.

I must admit, though, that I didn't interpret the Donovan scene as being a dig at Donovan at all. I didn't read it as Dylan intentionally showing up his rival -- it's just that Dylan, no matter where or when he's playing, can't seem to give anything less than 100%, so an informal jam session winds up sounding like he's delivering a studio take. I liked Donovan's performance, and thought Baez was, as ever, a total snooze, but the one thing they have in common is that they're clearly not on Dylan's level in terms of sheer brilliant artistry.

John and Aaron: thanks for the recommendations. I haven't seen either of the films you mention, but they sound like essential viewing.

Jamie said...

Great stuff here guys on an ever better essay by Ed.

I wonder if anyone has ever seen the short verite classic from 1961 'Lonely Boy' about singer Paul Anka.

It can be found on netflix as an extra on Peter Watkin's 'Privilege' from (1967), which is a rather messy film (even though it does feature the beautiful Jean Shrimpton). It would make a GREAT comparison to the Dylan classic.

Joel Bocko said...

Dave, to me it's the kind of moment where you think "What an asshole" but you're kind of envious of him for pulling it off. It's the attraction of arrogance vs. the repulsion of smugness. I think movies, and not just fly-on-the-wall docs, thrive on such attraction to such sociopathic charisma.

Sam Juliano said...

I didn't realize you had written this essay, (I'm NOT THERE) as I apparently failed to negotiate the letters properly. Well, it's a brilliant piece of criticism, one I wholeheartedly concur with. I've said much about this film, so I'll leave it at that. It's fantastic that the famed critic David Ehrenstein is active in the comment section, even broviding his own interview with Haynes.

Simply awesome, Ed.

Joel Bocko said...

I have to say I'm Not There didn't quite work for me. It seemed to be all dressed up with no place to go. I can see how one would like it, but I found it just left a very blank impression of Dylan, though Cate Blanchett was quite good in her role (one can't say the same for Christian Bale and his ever-annoying accents - it seems like every movie he shows up with a new grating voice).

Jim H. said...

Hi Ed, wonderful blog on DLB, and I heartily agree with your take on it. I do have to differ, though, with your later comment that "Dylan can never seem to give less than 100%" when performing. Now that statement does seem a little like "awed hero worship" to me! :-) I think all serious Dylan fans have seen many times when Bob just seems to be going through the motions, forgetting lyrics, almost willfuly unable to get his guitar in tune, etc. But, of course, when he's on, there's no one like him! Oh, and in regards to the famous scene where the two young girls tell him he doesn't sound like himself anymore, well when you're 14 and madly in love with something (be it the music or the man) even the slightest change could seem like a tragedy. I do know for a fact that at least one of those young ladies has long since "forgiven" Bob for changing and still listens to and cherishes ALL of Bob's music to this day.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks for the comment, Jim. In retrospect, my remark about Dylan only giving 100% was certainly overstatement and in any event was meant to be limited to the period covered by this film, and the sense I get that at that time, he was at the top of his game even in off-the-cuff jam sessions. That might not always be true, and certainly I'm not someone who thinks that everything Dylan does is golden.

Glad to hear that little tidbit about the scene with the 2 girls, too. Of course, change is scary, and no one wants to see something they love change into something they're not so sure about. In many ways, I have similar trepidations about Dylan's later Christian conversion period, liking as I do most of the stuff he did before that and, actually, a lot of the stuff he's done since.

Jim H. said...

Yeah, I knew that...I was just funnin' ya! And I heartily agree with your comments on the Christian era Dylan vs DLB DLB he is AMAZING in performance. That transition period between full folk and full electric is my favorite Dylan music. By the way, check out the song I wrote (written from Dylan's point of view) about the scene with the two's on Youtube, just search Song for Andy and Carol.