May 23, 1967
Dont Look Back
#1 film at the US box office, May 21-27, 1967
“It will be a good joke on us all if, in fifty years or so, Dylan is regarded as a significant figure in English poetry. Not Mr. Thomas, the late Welsh bard, but Bob, the guitar-picking American balladeer.”
So begins Donal Henahan’s review of the documentary Dont Look Back, published in the New York Times on the film’s re-release in September 1967. Henahan’s tongue-in-cheek prophecy was astonishingly accurate: in 2017, exactly 50 years later, Bob Dylan accepted the Nobel Prize for Literature.
In the same paragraph, Henahan points to Dont Look Back as “a step toward [Dylan’s] canonization.” Indeed, the documentary’s depiction of the singer-songwriter on his 1965 British tour — all drainpipe trousers, Chelsea boots, and bushy hair, contemptuously confronting legions of clueless reporters and less-hip hangers-on — is the most indelible of all of Dylan’s various iterations, captured at the point where he transformed from admired artist to wry pop icon. Dylan had been firmly in control of his image since emerging in 1960 as a sort of Woody Guthrie Jr, a folkie reincarnated from the ethereal “Old Weird America,” as Greil Marcus termed it. But the presence of a film crew, and the awareness of the wide reach and permanence of film, gave Dylan an outlet to recast himself as a new character — one even more aloof and harder to crack.
Dont Look Back (the simplified spelling sans apostrophe is intentional) was filmed in late April and early May 1965, soon after the release of the half-acoustic, half-electric album Bringing It All Back Home. Dylan had spent the previous few years as a cult figure in the US, a shadowy songwriter and emblem of the folk revival. “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” the decidedly rock-and-roll lead single from his latest album, gave Dylan his first Top 40 hit that spring, climbing all the way to the lofty #39 spot.
In contrast, Dylan hadn’t made much of an impression in Britain until mid-1964, but his star rose quickly and burned brightly. In April 1965, shortly before his tour began, “The Times They are A-Changin’” made the Top 10 of the UK Singles Chart, while The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan cracked the top spot of the albums chart. In May, immediately after the tour ended, he’d rack up another Top 10 hit (“Subterranean Homesick Blues”), another number-one album (Bringing It All Back Home), and two more LPs in the Top 10 (The Times They are A-Changin’ and Another Side of Bob Dylan).
Dylan’s meteoric rise in the UK landed him even more media attention in Britain than he had at home. Dont Look Back is dotted with press conferences and interviews, where reporters’ serious (and sometimes outright hostile) questions are treated to Dylan’s enigmatic, smart ass, or cutting responses. Dylan seems bored and above answering their questions, while at the same time using these media appearances to hone his new persona. While this British concert tour was still solo and acoustic — his last ever to be so, in fact — Dylan was already recasting himself from folkie to rock star, with all the withering coolness that entailed.
This transition plays out beyond the media glare as well, in Dont Look Back’s backstage scenes. Dylan holds court over his friends from the folk scene, rather than relating to them as equals. He meets up-and-coming British star Donovan, who models himself on Dylan’s old persona. After Donovan performs his likable ditty “To Sing for You,” Dylan confiscates his guitar and one-ups him with “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” as if to show how far he has evolved in comparison. Most poignantly, Dylan brings along his one-time girlfriend Joan Baez — who launched his career — but mostly ignores her, occasionally mocks her, and neglects to return the favor of bringing her on stage with him.
Director D.A. Pennebaker, an adherent of the Direct Cinema movement, lets the events play out without narration, interviews, or blatantly interacting with his subject. There’s no context or commentary, which gives Dont Look Back the perception of objective reality. Yet Pennebaker was keenly aware of the observer effect, by which the act of observing something changes it. If he includes only a few fragments of Dylan actually playing in concert, it’s because he already has plenty of footage of Dylan performing for the camera, no music required. That’s why, too, the most memorable scene is the “Subterranean Homesick Blues” sequence that opens the film, which Dylan performs without even bothering to sing.
Dont Look Back takes place in the narrow window of time shortly after Dylan debuted his new electric sound, when he could still be cocky about his unprecedented experimentation and newfound popular success. His infamous Newport Folk Festival gig would follow that summer, in which he and his rock band would be greeted with a chorus of jeers and backlash from friends and fans alike. Indeed, Dylan’s posturing in Dont Look Back could be interpreted as self-preservation by someone who knows he is uncannily talented and widely admired, but who still fears he could alienate his audience at any moment.
A year after teaming up on Dont Look Back, which would finally be released in May 1967, Pennebaker reunited with Dylan to film his 1966 British tour backed by the Hawks (later known simply as The Band). After Pennebaker showed Dylan his cut of the film, however, Dylan seized the footage and re-edited his own version. Titled Eat the Document, it was rejected by ABC Television (who had commissioned it) as incomprehensible. The film has never officially been released.
By the time Dont Look Back reached cinemas, its subject had done a complete 180 from the confident, media-baiting star of the film. After a motorcycle accident in July 1966, Dylan had withdrawn from the public; he wouldn’t tour again for eight years. Perhaps his mysterious disappearance helped account for Dont Look Back’s popularity, offering a glimpse of a hero in hiding. When Dylan at last emerged from seclusion in the final days of 1967, it was with John Wesley Harding, which cast aside the electric instrumentation and hipster affectations of his previous three albums. If the Dylan of Dont Look Back had played at confounding expectations and manipulating the media, the Dylan of John Wesley Harding had talked the talk, veering his sound in a truly unexpected direction and avoiding the camera’s harsh but warm glow.
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