Dont Look Back

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“Give the anarchist a cigarette”, Dylan says as he drives away from his concert at The Royal Albert Hall in London on May 9, 1965. Basking in the post-performance glow of the penultimate show of his eight concert tour of England, Dylan is told by his manager, Albert Grossman, that the UK papers have taken to calling him an anarchist, because the protest singer is unable to offer any solutions to the problems he enumerates. Of course the papers don’t know it yet, but Dylan is no longer a folk singer. When D. A. Pennebaker’s cameras caught this conversation in the documentary Dont Look Back, Dylan would perform only one last folk concert, the next night in the same London venue. After that his next stop would be an electric set at Newport, and then a tour with The Hawks, rock star style.

It’s been almost thirty years since I’ve watched Dont Look Back. Parts of it I remembered so clearly I barely needed to see them again. Other parts made sense to me now in a way that they never would have when I was a teenager (the moment when the reporter from BBC Africa Service talks to him about Madhouse on Castle Street is only sensible because I recently watched what’s left of that BBC drama). It is still a tremendous film – the template for so very many other rock documentaries – and a very real glimpse into the private life of a certain version of Bob Dylan.

Most striking to me on this watching was Dylan’s treatment of the press. I’ve been listening to “Ballad of a Thin Man” in various versions all day, so it was definitely on my mind tonight. The initial press conferences when Dylan arrives in the UK is really oppressive. The questions are just so inane that you can immediately understand why Dylan would respond by simply toying with the reporters. His verbal sparring with Terry Ellis is a really uncomfortable scene, with a bullying side of Dylan emerging that is unpleasant to watch (that Ellis would go on to found Chrysalis Records and become one of the most important figures in British rock during the 1970s is one of those great things that maybe you only learn by reading Wikipedia after you finish watching a film like this one; it made me go back and rewatch the scene all over again). The final interview, with Horace Freeland Judson of Time Magazine is just brutal to watch. You can see how fed up Dylan has become, how bitter and uncompromising. Not surprising at all that only a few months later he would write one of the nastiest and orneriest songs ever recorded.

The other moments of great interest, of course, is the way that Dylan deals with other singers in his orbit. His relationship with Joan Baez was souring by the time of this tour, and it ended in the midst of it. She walks out the door one night while he’s typing, and while we see her one more time in the film, that was that. We never see Dylan react to her departure – or perhaps that’s all the reaction that he gave to her leaving. Hard to know. Dylan’s questioning of Alan Price (“Why’d you leave The Animals?”) comes out of nowhere, and seems to put Price in his place when Dylan tires of toying with Ellis. Finally, the scenes with Donovan. Well, amazing. Dylan’s quest to find him and learn about him, Baez’s knowing laughter when the press accuses Donovan of having betrayed his fans (“He’s only been around for three months”, she’s told), Dylan’s appreciation of Donovan in the hotel room, and then his complete and utter mastery of the room when he takes Donovan’s guitar and plays “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”. The hierarchies of stardom have never seemed more clear.

For years when I was teaching Film Studies regularly I thought of teaching a course on rock documentaries: Madonna: Truth of Dare. Metallica: Some Kind of Monster. Shut Up and Sing. Spinal Tap. Dig! Needless to say, Dont Look Back is the one that unlocks them all. Everything else owes such a debt to Pennebaker that it can be hard to even see the film for how great it is. The beautiful flashback when the reporter asks Dylan how he got started and Pennebaker cuts to Dylan in 1963 singing “Only A Pawn in Their Game” in Greenwood, Mississippi. Less than two years had passed, and Dylan was a completely different singer – Pennebaker shows that so effortlessly. It really is masterful.

Today, the film is best known for its relentlessly ripped off opening, the proto-music video for “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, even though that’s maybe the most gimmicky part of the whole thing. It’s too bad, because there is so very much more in there, even if we never do learn who threw the glass out on the street….

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