Hanging Out With Bob Dylan
Director D.A. Pennebaker’s ‘Dont Look Back’ Gives Viewers Incredible Access to Bob Dylan in 1965
The Criterion Collection is a distribution company that specializes in “important” classic and contemporary films. Through Hulu, many of these films are made available to stream. Once a week, I like to illuminate a Criterion movie — to deepen one’s understanding of filmmaking and film history. This week’s movie: “Dont Look Back” (1967)
Just under a month ago, the world of literature — and pop culture — received a huge shockwave: Bob Dylan, the famous singer/songwriter, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. The Nobel Prize committee described their choice because Dylan “created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”. Soon after the announcement, the floodgates of pop culture discussion burst open.
Many came to the defense of the committee’s decision, while some were not pleased — as they did not see Dylan as a contributor to literature. However, one voice did remain silent: Bob Dylan’s. Notorious for shying away from public interviews or recognition, Dylan remained silent on the award until a couple days ago — where he was grateful for the award in an interview for a British newspaper.
Getting any words (that are not song lyrics) from Dylan is a challenge. Though he has written one memoir and given a few high profile interviews, Bob Dylan remains mysterious. His thoughts rarely are given plainly. Hell, what the man does besides tour is somewhat of a mystery. Because of his level of living in the shadows, any illumination into Dylan’s life creates a great deal of interest.
Intrigued by the initial reaction by Dylan on the Nobel Prize, I read/watched any first hand accounts by Dylan. I wanted to know more about the man from the man. My dive into transcripts that span 50 years lead me to Don’t Look Back. Directed by documentarian D.A. Pennebaker, the film follows Dylan during his 1965 tour in England. It features concert and behind the scenes footage of Dylan and his crew. Considered an all-time great documentary, the candid portrait of Dylan certainly warrants that claim.
In 1965, Bob Dylan was, arguably, on the best streak of success ever attained by any pop culture figure. Dylan’s self-titled first album came out in 1962, and by the end of 1965 the singer-songwriter had six releases to his name. All six, at the time and today, are considered all time great albums. Because of his reputation of being a folk icon, singing about social causes, Dylan became a huge figure within many social scenes.
The documentary does not follow a storyline, per se, as it exists more so as a collection of clips from that 1965 tour. The brilliant aspect is seeing Dylan in many different lights. At times he is a funny young man, having fun with friends on tour. There are jokes and light-hearted moments that make Dylan likable. Those scenes are juxtaposed with scenes that show Dylan as an arrogant and distant man. This film is not here to sell you one version of Dylan. He is not the mythical songwriter, who, through song, is going solve the world’s problems — nor he is a man so distant and removed from life that would make him unlikable. Dylan is as complex as any other human. That is what makes him — and the film — interesting.
Because the film is a collection of scenes “molded” to look like a 96 minute documentary, the film as a whole does not always stick. There is no doubt that Bob Dylan is an exceptional figure to feature as a subject for a documentary, but we get scenes of his manager negotiating contracts and lengthy scenes of conversations and music. Interesting for some, but, for me, the lengthy scenes of contracts and random conversations grew tiresome. For example — there is too much time spent on Dylan and The Animals’ Alan Price hanging out. I was not that interested in Price. At points, this documentary takes a lot of work to get through — and it is only an hour and a half!
What really works is what you come to expect: scenes featuring Bob Dylan. The concert footage is beautifully shot; the audio is tremendous. Hearing live versions — especially of Dylan’s early work — is exciting. Early on in the film, we see Dylan dealing with the press. He is lighthearted and gives short, open-ended questions. As frustrating for the press that may be, I saw Bob Dylan today in that 1965 version of himself. The interesting connection was made: this is who Dylan really is. It is not “an act”.
Dylan lets the music do the talking; he is just the vessel in which the music is released. There is a moment in the film where a question is asked to Dylan, but before he can answer the film cuts to Dylan performing. The best editing of the film perfectly captures the character that is Bob Dylan: my music speaks for me. Experiencing that mindset from a young Dylan makes for an incredible filmmaking.
The film also, though barely, is a break-up film. At the time Dylan was in a relationship with singer-songwriter Joan Baez. Though featured in a couple scenes, one can sense a relationship growing cold. The fast paced life of fame and touring captures Dylan’s imagination and seeing him move forward with his forward. Sadly, Baez is a part of his past that he chooses to let go.
Among his attitude toward Baez, there are points where Dylan is the arrogant, know-it-all that dissipates any picture of him being a folk hero. There is a scene where Dylan taunts a journalist from Time Magazine and another where he goes back and forth with a student about philosophy. Dylan brings a holier-than-thou mind-frame, turning off any fan who watches. It is an ugly side of Dylan.
Nonetheless, the film captures a fun, in-depth look at Bob Dylan in the 1960s. There is no narration to guide you, or on camera interviews. D.A. Pennebaker presents you with the footage of Dylan as he was in the mid-1960s. It answers as many as questions as it raises, while keeping Bob Dylan an enigma. For those interested in the singer-songwriter, or a music fan, check this documentary out.
(Yes, I listened to Bob Dylan while writing this.)