In the midst of all the turmoil and upheaval in the 1960s, art of various forms were becoming more fresh, more angry, more immediate. The sheen of the ’50s gave way to resentment of authority and a desire for grittiness. And two mediums that got major overhauls during the period emerged as being distinctly of the moment: folk music and veritae cinema. Folk music was stripped down, it was about musicianship and lyrics more than production or instrumentation. People could sing about what was on their mind right then and those messages have remained prescient and important. Veritae cinema, specifically surrounding the documentary, was a way to simply present reality as reality, letting people feel like they’re there in the moment. These two perfectly blended in the 1967 film Don’t Look Back, directed by D.A. Pennebaker and about the legend that is Bob Dylan.
Following Dylan on his 1965 tour of England, Pennebaker shows us a mixture of concert footage with Dylan and his cronies backstage, in hotel rooms, noodling around on pianos, writing, and—perhaps most famously—getting into philosophical debates with unwitting journalists. It’s amazing to me how a handheld, black-and-white film shot 50 years ago can still feel so fresh, new, and kind of dangerous. Dylan as a subject is nothing short of fascinating. Bob Dylan has always seemed a million years old to me, so it’s odd to realize that he was only 24 at the time of filming. And it kind of shows. He’s got a kind of odd immaturity to some of the things he says and does, but it’s also clear that his attitude and standoffishness with people he thinks don’t “get it” has never diminished.
Throughout the film, we get lots of Dylan playing songs, but we also get to see Joan Baez hanging out and playing as well, and joining in the fun, like the guys’ little sister or something. Scottish folk musician Donovan also plays a big part in that he’s sort of a joke to Dylan and he’s not even sure who the guy is. References are made to Donovan throughout the film, and then finally Donovan himself comes to hang out, and it’s very clear he idolizes Dylan and is always trying to get in good with him. But no sooner has he left than does Dylan start making fun of him again. It’s sort of sad, but undeniably funny. I enjoy Donovan, for the record.
What makes this movie work so abundantly well is that Pennebaker never tries to coax something out of Dylan or ask him questions to get a response; this is just watching people hanging out, doing things, saying what they like. Dylan is very much at ease in the scenes he’s not being interviewed by some journalist or other, and even then, he would much rather just talk to people than be asked specific questions. As someone who isn’t particularly comfortable interviewing people, I can’t decide if that would put me more at ease or less. What could you possibly ask someone who writes such poetry that wouldn’t come off as completely trite or out of touch?
On top of all the great footage of people just being around each other, we of course have multiple moments of Dylan onstage performing and each and every one is as enthralling as the last. The above trailer opens the film and is an early example of a music video. It’s one of the most striking ways to start a film you could think of. The song “The Times They Are A-Changin'” is Dylan’s first song at each of his performances in the film and we get to see it several times—though the point seems to be that nobody really understands what that song is about and it’s not up to Dylan to explain it. How frustrating, but also how great all said and done.
The new Criterion Blu-ray contains a host of extras both old and new, including the 1999 audio commentary with Pennebaker and tour manager Bob Neuwirth; 65 Revisited, a 2006 documentary by Pennebaker looking back at the making of Don’t Look Back (hence breaking their own rule); audio excerpts of Dylan interviews from 2000; a doc about Pennebaker’s style along with three of his early short films; a new conversation between Pennebaker and Neuwirth; outtakes from the movie; an interview with musician Patti Smith and more if you can believe it.
This is one of the best movies about music ever made and the Criterion edition Blu-ray does not disappoint in the slightest. Pick it up and never look back.
Images: Pennebaker Hegedus Films Inc/Ashes & Sand Inc/Criterion Collection
Kyle Anderson is the Weekend Editor and a film and TV critic for Nerdist.com. Follow him on Twitter!