Criterion Discovery: Dont Look Back
Dont Look Back (Spine #786) is one of the greatest “rock docs” of film history (practically inventing the subgenre), and likely the most famous of director D.A. Pennebaker’s cinematic oeuvre. It is the fourth film of Pennebaker’s in the collection, the others being The War Room (#602), Monterey Pop (Spine #168), and Jimi Plays Monterey & Shake! Otis at Monterey (#169).
The documentary covers Dylan’s 1965 tour in England, focusing on the minutiae of his time across the pond: his sparring with journalists, his conversations with roadies, and his thoughts on life in general.
Dont Look Back is filmed with the cinema verite approach, meaning that it is filmed directly, as if the camera was a proverbial “fly on the wall.” It is no surprise, then, that when this film released many people were aghast at how the Bob Dylan acted throughout the movie. After watching the film, Roger Ebert wrote that “those who consider Dylan a lone, ethical figure standing up against the phonies will discover, after seeing this film, that they have lost their hero.” For Ebert, the Dylan of Dont Look Back was a petty and vindictive man too absorbed in his own success to actually care about anyone. The poetic moralizing in songs like “Only a Pawn in Their Game” and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” seemed inconclusive with the man on display in this documentary.
Ebert wasn’t wrong. Dylan does come off as something of a conceited jerk in several scenes. In one in particular, he thrashes a writer for Time magazine, seemingly unprompted, saying things like “I don’t need Time magazine.” He seems condescending and smug, like a first year philosophy student trying to out-think his relatives at Thanksgiving. Yet, watching the scene, there appears to be more than just pompous celebrity tomfoolery on display. Pennebaker is capturing Dylan at his youngest, his most brash, and perhaps, at his best. He may be something of an asshole, but what an interesting asshole! What a strange, creative asshole! Watching the young Dylan romp around London, smirking like he constantly knows a joke no one else does, one begins to realize that his music couldn’t come from anyone else. A song like “Rainy Day Woman #12 and #35,” which has the exclamatory refrain of “Everybody must get stoned!”, has to have come from a devious little jester-man who believes himself above it all. No one else would be bold enough; no one else would have that creative audacity. Hidden underneath all of Dylan’s egocentric theatrics (and his youth) is his spark of genius fueling it all.
Pennebaker’s brilliance is in capturing all of this. His powers of cinematic observation are at heights here that wouldn’t be reached until 1993’s The War Room. In capturing all these minor scenes of Dylan off the stage eating, talking, and socializing, Pennebaker creates what is essentially a profile of the man at a certain time and place, something honest and deeply compelling, like Gay Talese’s portrait of Frank Sinatra in his famous piece “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.” It’s not always a flattering portrait, but it is always great documentary filmmaking.
Dont Look Back, like the best of Criterion’s output, is a treasure trove of supplemental material. Included are three of Pennebaker’s early films, including his very first, a strange little movie called Daybreak Express. There’s also a second entire documentary of Pennebaker’s about Dylan, 65 Revisited, which makes excellent viewing when seen in tandem with Dont Look Back. The disk comes with several interviews as well, including one with the great Patti Smith, who reminisces about what an immense impact Dylan has had on her. Watching the interview, one is reminded that, despite how obnoxious he could be, there is something positively invigorating about the obnoxiousness of Dylan’s early years.
Dont Look Back is a great film not only for fans of Dylan and rock and roll, but for fans of film in general. It uses the documentary form in a way that hadn’t been done before at the time of its release, and that still works like gangbusters today. The film captures Dylan, in all his complicated glory.
Criterion Grade: A+
Film Grade: A
Featured Image: The Criterion Collection