#237) Dont Look Back (1967)
OR “London Calling, Yes, Bob Was There Too”
Directed by D.A. Pennebaker
Class of 1998
The Plot: Freewheelin’ singer/songwriter (don’t call him “folk singer”) Bob Dylan is going to England for his first major tour, and D.A. Pennebaker is there to film it all! Travelling with his entourage (including then-girlfriend Joan Baez), Dylan goes from Sheffield to Liverpool to London in a matter of two weeks in spring 1965. He sings his hits, but this film is mostly Dylan dealing with fame, show business, and some new up-and-coming singer named Donovan everybody keeps comparing him to.
Why It Matters: The NFR (which misspells the title, by the way) praises Pennebaker, saying his cinema vérité style “captures the enigma of Dylan”. They also call Bob Dylan a “fascinating subject”.
But Does It Really?: Lets chalk up “Dont Look Back” to “aesthetically significant”. I got nothing against Bob Dylan, I’ve just never paid him any mind. That being said, I did enjoy the film. Pennebaker knows how to take performers and get you to see the people under the persona. Dylan is the conflicting dichotomy you expect from a young artist-turned-celebrity; earnest, cocky, down-to-earth, arrogant. Bob Dylan has a massive footprint on American culture, and thank God Pennebaker was there to capture this pivotal turning point in his never-ending career. If you’re a Dylan fan, you’ll get a lot more out of this than I did.
Everybody Gets One: There’s no way I can unpack everything about Bob Dylan in this post. What I will say is that by the time filming began, the former Robert Zimmerman was already an established singer-songwriter caught up in the protests and civil rights movements of the era. He settled on England for his first tour after performing in a few clubs in London in 1963. He even appeared in a teleplay while he was there (“Madhouse on Castle Street”, which gets a shoutout in the film). Fun Fact: Bob got his stage name while reading poems by Dylan Thomas.
Wow, That’s Dated: Mid-60’s London: there’s nothing else quite like it. The men adorn their Beatles-moptops, the women their layers of hairspray. Also, at one point folk-singer Bob Neuwirth does a decent Lyndon Johnson impression.
Take a Shot: A few things about the title: it’s not taken from the Dylan song “She Belongs To Me”, but rather a quote from baseball player Satchel Paige: “Don’t look back, something might be gaining on you.” Also, the lack of an apostrophe is intentional.
Seriously, Oscars?: No Best Documentary nomination for “Dont Look Back”. Coincidentally, one of the nominees that year was “Festival”, a look at the Newport Folk Festival that features performances by Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. “Festival” lost out to “The Anderson Platoon”, a French documentary about the Vietnam War.
- We start off with the iconic “music video” for Bob’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues”. Dylan and Pennebaker filmed it after the tour, but stuck it at the beginning of the film. If he hadn’t been a singer-songwriter, Bob could have been an excellent cue-card boy. And yes, that’s Allen Ginsberg in the background.
- Bob Dylan was 24 when he did this tour, which explains a lot of his attitudes and actions. I thought I knew everything when I was 24, too. Also, Bob is from Minnesota? Would’ve lost that bet.
- Does Bob Dylan look like Cate Blanchett or does Cate Blanchett look like Bob Dylan?
- Fans must have known where Bob Dylan was going to show up, there’s a camera crew at the ready!
- Wow, manager Albert Grossman does not mess around. It must be tough going through life looking like Garrison Keiller.
- During one of the concerts, Bob’s microphone becomes unplugged. Are we sure Pennebaker wasn’t creating drama for his own movie?
- Wow, being famous seems terrifying.
- Bob looks fascinated by the electric guitar in the store. How much is that fan alienation in the window?
- Oh man, this scene of Bob antagonizing the science student goes on forever. The student in question is Terry Ellis, who is now a successful record producer in his own right. So I guess it was worth it?
- And then Donovan finally shows up. They seem cordial with each other, performing for each other and chatting. Not nearly as climactic as it’s intended to be. Side Note: I have a soft spot for “Atlantis”.
- Was the Dylan tour America’s retaliation for the British Invasion?
- Bob makes a lot of good (albeit tense) points during his Time magazine interview. At one point he says, “The truth is just a plain picture.” Not unlike Pennebaker’s style of documentary filmmaking.
- The Short Version: Bob Dylan more or less stopped playing acoustic guitar after this tour, and would go on to (among countless other things) convert to Christianity, win an Oscar and a Nobel Prize, and be on the same tour for the last 30 years.
- Dylan and Pennebaker reunited for “Eat the Document”, which, with the exception of a few clips in Martin Scorsese’s “No Direction Home”, has not seen the light of day.
- Pennebaker returned to the film yet again in 2007, using outtakes to make a whole new film, “65 Revisited”.
- “Sebastian Cabot, Actor. Bob Dylan, Poet.” It’s a frickin’ masterpiece.
- The movie “Bob Roberts” makes a lot of references to this movie. Did not see that one coming.
- The footage of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” has been spoofed many times, but all you really need is “Bob”.
- Bob’s line “Give the anarchist a cigarette” has had a life all its own, being referenced in various songs through the years.
- And of course, the well-made but drastic departure of a sequel: “Don’t Look Now”.
Further Viewing: In the vein of “Dont Look Back”, my favorite Pennebaker film is “Original Cast Recording: Company”. Like the title suggests, Pennebaker witnesses the creatives behind the Sondheim musical “Company” spend 14 hours recording their Broadway cast album. Come for the insight, stay for Elaine Stritch’s finest film performance.
Listen to This: Readers, I give you “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan”.