It’s time for Bob Dylan fans to take a break from listening to The Cutting Edge 1965-1966, and head for the couch in front of that big, flat screen TV. Dont (sic) Look Back is back, and it’s better and more expanded than ever.
D.A. Pennebaker’s 1967 documentary of Bob Dylan’s 1965 acoustic tour of Britain is considered a classic for its groundbreaking cinéma vérité style, as well as encapsulating a pivotal moment in the history of popular music. The film was included in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 1998, and is often near – or at – the top of any “Best Music Documentary” or “Greatest Rock Film” polls.
Pennebaker, still going strong at 90, has been involved in filmmaking for more than 60 years, and his movies have covered a wide variety of topics. Dont Look Back was not the first music-based documentary directed by Pennebaker, nor would it be the last. However, this film in particular stands out for a variety of reasons, most notably the intimate, hand-held grainy camera work used in a portrait of the artist as a young man, a musician attempting to avoid allowing fame to swallow him up as his blazes his own path, not caring who else gets burned.
Dont Look Back now joins other Pennebaker films as part of the Criterion Collection, a company that prides itself on catering to the cinematic connoisseur. I spoke with “Penny” on the eve of its re-release. He was expansive, giving in-depth and detailed answers to whatever question he was asked. He was also self-deprecating, giving most of the credit to his subjects, and his cohorts. However, none of this would have happened without the skills and talents of one Mr. D.A. Pennebaker.
Movie making has evolved quite a bit in the six-plus decades since you’ve been involved in the process. What are your thoughts on all of these changes?
The whole thing is just incredibly astonishing! I heard the new film, Tangerine, was filmed entirely on iPhones. No cameras were involved! This is what I always thought would happen … When we started (Dont Look Back), we had to make a camera, because there were no cameras that you could carry around that would be safe, that you could shoot dialogue with … It’s kind of wondrous. In 20 years – well I’m sure I won’t be around – people will be using equipment we now don’t even know could exist.
How was the original process of making the film different from the new Criterion version?
We shot on negative. We pretty much handed it over (to Criterion.) In the beginning, when we were shooting it, we had a lab in England that we liked … They made everything look OK. The secret was not having a good knowledge of exposure, but of having a very good lab.
Dont Look Back was available in limited release for a short while in 1967 and 1968, then was out of circulation for about 15 years …
It came and went. To some degree because of some problems (manager) Albert Grossman and Dylan were having with each other. Dylan, who was my partner in the film, was trying to figure out what to do with the film. I didn’t know, I wasn’t a distributor. To get it into a movie house was complicated … The films were distributed by a distributing annex that was really a marketing operation out of Hollywood … So when I show up with a ratty looking film … the guy in the theater can’t believe it. He has no way conceiving (of showing this to a mainstream audience.) If it hadn’t been for a porn film operator, who saw it and eagerly grabbed it … because, he said it looked like a porn film, but wasn’t … a 16 mm print ran (in a San Francisco theater) for almost a year, and it managed to generate enough money for us to make a 35 mm blow up and open it in New York.
When I first saw Dont Look Back, it was unlike anything I’d ever seen, even though it was already 15 years old …
It was rather ratty looking, don’t you think?
Being a fan, it was like watching a Bob Dylan bootleg on the big screen. I thought it was cool, and a bit disturbing, to see such an unflattering portrait of someone I admired. However, with the DVD commentary, more research, and more life experience, a more sympathetic aspect did emerge.
I was reminded of this English writer who collected all the letters to and from (Lord) Byron … He went to Italy with (Percy) Shelley … All the English sort-of intellectuals came down to hang out with him … Byron wasn’t even 30. He was a young scamp! I kept thinking, if I had been there and been able to have a camera and just watch, the way I could do with Dylan, people would be watching that film for hundreds of years afterwards, because Byron was so interesting. It wasn’t my camera work that would be fascinating, but they were interested in: ‘What is this guy like? … How could he command such a huge hunk of history at the age of 28, having written a few poems?’ That’s kind of what I felt I had here, that I made it for the future … It has to be the subject who makes it work.
Part two tomorrow …
More on the new, exclusive, supplemental material can be found here. A video excerpt of the Patti Smith interview is embedded in this article.
- Bob Dylan in ‘Dont Look Back: The Criterion Collection’
- D. A. Pennebaker (Director)
- Buy from Amazon: Blu-ray / 2DVD
Of the dozens of Dylan Internet sites … Expecting Rain … and the atombash.com Bob Dylan blog by Harold Lepidus are the best places for up-to-the-minute Dylan news – David Kinney, “The Dylanologists: Adventures in the Land of Bob.”(Simon & Schuster, 2014)
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