Thursday’s Editor’s Pick: “Don’t Look Back” (1967)

by on May 19, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Wed May 18 through Tue May 24 at 1:00, 4:45, 8:30 at Film Forum [Program & Tix]


Film Forum celebrates Bob Dylan’s 70th birthday with a pair of concert docs that film critics are contractually obligated to bill as “landmark”: D.A. Pennebaker’s traveling roadshow Don’t Look Back–for Jonathan Rosenbaum, the film that “evokes the 60s like few other documents”–and Murray Lerner’s The Other Side of the Mirror, a triptych of Dylan’s annual Newport Folk Festival performances during his ’63 to ’65, acoustic folk to electric rock transition.
Pennebaker will be on hand to introduce his film at Thursday’s 8:30 show, and Lerner will do the same for his own on Friday at 6:45.


Cullen Gallagher for The L Magazine:

From its indelible opening scene, in which a neo-statuesque Dylan stands in an alley holding up cue cards with words from “Subterranean Homesick Blues” while the song plays over the soundtrack, Pennebaker’s cinema verite-styled film challenges traditional music documentaries. While the film covers Dylan’s 1965 UK tour, the focus here is not on performance, with many songs being reduced to only a handful of measures. Instead, Pennebaker concentrates on the ephemera of the tour: hotel management complaining about the noise; Joan Baez singing “Percy’s Song” while Dylan is busy at the typewriter and his manager lounges across the room; numerous encounters with critics and journalists.


Dylan’s trademark run-around answers (often turning himself into the interviewer) are never at the expense of the journalists, for whom Pennebaker shows great sympathy. Their stale and clichéd questions are the remnants of an archaic tabloid reduction of music, and these writers are victims of its strong tradition (which even today shows no sign of releasing its firm grasp). Dylan’s resistance is his way of attempting to redefine the roles of not only the artist being interviewed but also the way in which journalism approaches the arts. This fractured relationship between “the artist” and society is Pennebaker’s central theme: accessible enough to make the film appeal even to non-Dylan fans, yet crucial enough to make the film resonate loudly over forty  years later.


Fernando F. Croce for Cinepassion:

Warhol encourages the theatricality of the ordinary while Pennebaker accentuates the offhand (and off-guard) ordinariness of superstars — Baez sings “Percy’s Song” in a hotel room as Dylan, back to camera, types his novel one key at a time. The two do a couple of Hank Williams tunes, but the “Bard in Black” knows he’s the one directing the film, a great whirlwind even when frequently making an abusive ass of himself: “Dylan Digs Donovan” makes front-page news, yet the meeting is a sly bitchslap, with Dylan snatching Donovan’s guitar after “To Sing For You” to make way for “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” Dylan shares a quick giggle with the camera as tour promoter Albert Grossman badgers for more money in the background, Alan Price drops by to use a piano to open a beer bottle, Marianne Faithful is here somewhere. A glass hurled out a window triggers the asshole in Dylan, a performance of “To Ramona” displays his genius — “not so much singing as sermonizing,” goes one reporter, another is made a befuddled pawn in extended mind games (“Give me a reason I should want to know you”). Like Picasso at his canvas filching authorship from Clouzot in Le Mystère Picasso, Dylan courses through like loose mercury, a capricious nightmare, inscrutable jester, brilliant artist. Pennebaker just has to man the zoom, adjust the focus, and try to keep up.


Jim Ridley for the Village Voice:

An unforgettable all-access pass behind the scenes of Bob Dylan’s ’65 British tour, D.A. Pennebaker’s landmark 1967 rock doc all but invented the form while presaging the music video with its oft-copied “Subterranean Homesick Blues” clip (watch for Allen Ginsberg in the background).  The concert footage of the young Dylan in his punky prime is electrifying, but the most fun comes from the privileged glimpses of his sadistic wit. Exhausted and literally sick of being analyzed, Dylan plays fearsome head games with a haplessTime reporter and a middle-aged interviewer, while folk-rocker Donovan drops by Dylan’s room to play a wispy ballad for the gang—only to have his host smile coolly, ask for the guitar, then dash off a little something called “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” See ya in hell, folkie. The other priceless offstage moment belongs to Albert Grossman, Dylan’s manager, who provides a casual lesson in how to weasel extra money out of the BBC. It’s nice to know the Sex Pistols didn’t invent great rock ‘n’ roll swindles.



Perrenially spry director D.A. Pennebaker on Dylan’s initial screening of the completed film, in an interview with Time:

When I finished it, he saw it out in Hollywood at a dreadful screening. Afterwards, he said, “We’ll have another screening and I’ll write down all of the things we have to change.” Of course, that made me a little gloomy. The next night, we assembled again and he sat in the front with this yellow pad. At the end of film, he held up the pad and there was nothing on it. He said, “That’s it.”



Chris Cabin for Slant:

Filmed during a three-week tour of London in the spring of 1965, a few months before Dylan’s electric set at the Newport Folk Festival threw his fanbase into tumult, Don’t Look Back promises and indeed delivers pleasures that might feel as forbidden as those found in Debby Does Dallas: the sight of a deity behind the scenes and in the midst of transition, acting like the rambling, arrogant, whip-smart, and immensely talented 24-year-old guitar player he actually was.Much transpired between the filming in 1965 and the West Coast release in the spring of 1967, some four months prior to the film showing up at the 34th St. East Theater in Manhattan. The production of Don’t Look Back started rolling right as Dylan was at his most anxious, honing his performance on songs he had written and recorded during the Bringing It All Back Homesessions. Highway 61 Revisited would bow in August, representing the high-water-mark confluence of his prophetic songwriting abilities and his ambitious sense of musical composition, but we just barely glean the creative impetus that resulted in that album. Indeed, like the songs on Bringing It All Back Home, Don’t Look Back depicts the shedding of a chrysalis and the first emergence of a figure that is essentially the same person, and yet inarguably, negligibly altered.


And here, just for kicks and giggles, is the much ballyhooed, ever-resonant opening sequence to get you in the mood:


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