The opening scene in D.A. Pennebaker's film Don't Look Back (compare prices) is often referred to as rock 'n' roll's first music video. In it, we see Bob Dylan holding cue cards with hand-painted snippets and words from his song “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” As this romp of a rockin' blues progresses, Dylan discards the signs one-by-one as bearded Beat poet Allen Ginsberg stands in the background holding a staff, sermonizing with Dylan's hipster compadre, Bob Neuwirth.
Shot over 11 days in six cities on the 1965 European tour, the black and white film focuses mainly on Dylan's happenings in London. The tour entourage, as captured by Pennebaker's crew, includes Joan Baez, Alan Price, Dylan's manager Albert Grossman, Donovan, Marianne Faithfull, John Mayall, Brian Pendleton and others.
Approached by Albert Grossman before the tour started, Pennebaker saw the obvious merits in tagging along with a crew to film Dylan's live shows in England, as well as the post-show entourage—jostling from limo to backstage to hotel, the press interviews with Dylan looking bored and reporters asking the most mundane questions, the post-concert parties at London's Savoy Hotel with Dylan sprinting to his typewriter when a crystal lyric jarred his brain, the entourage gag played on Donovan, the whole grueling tour atmosphere that, as the film progresses, captures Dylan more and more road-worn. Perfect fodder for Pennebaker's experiential filmmaking style.
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While shooting with a hand-held camera was nothing new in drama, in documentary it was unorthodox and revolutionary. Featuring things like lens shake and oddly profiled angles, the action has a more in-the-moment feel. Often called cinema verité, or “truth cinema,” the objective is candid realism. As a trademark style, over time the cinema verité movement would become synonymous with Pennebaker's name.
In the early '60s, Pennebaker worked at Drew and Associates production company with Richard Leacock and Life magazine photographer Robert Drew. During his short tenure there, Pennebaker was responsible for shooting the infamous desegregation stand-off of Governor George Wallace against the Kennedy administration at the University of Alabama, which became Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment. And that same year, 1963, Pennebaker would break off to form his own production company.
Most well-known for the films Don't Look Back and Moneterey Pop (1968), hitting some other highlights, D.A. Pennebaker was also responsible for Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1973), The War Room (1993), Woodstock Diary (1994), and too many more to list here. Now 85 years old, Pennebaker is one of those guys like Dick Clark who just doesn't seem to age (if you don't believe this, look at a recent photograph). And talk about prolific: 45 documentaries and counting in what is now a five-decade career.
Dylan in Transition
Don't Look Back is not a documentary about Bob Dylan's folk years, as some like to describe it. Rather, Pennebaker was filming Dylan's metamorphosis. While the performances on the London tour were indeed acoustic—and brilliant—Dylan had already moved past writing and playing acoustic music. He was bored with folk music. The audience reactions were predictable. The scene was stagnant. Dylan was already down the road, and he wasn't looking back. Even the opening scene with the electric “Subterranean Homesick Blues” is a telltale sign of Dylan's then-creative expansiveness. Immersing himself in the American bohemian tradition, the song title is a nod to Kerouac's novel, The Subterraneans, while Ginsberg's presence in the video speaks for itself.
When Pennebaker shot Don't Look Back in April and May of 1965, Dylan had already recorded and released his watershed album, Bringing it all Back Home, the half-acoustic-half-electric artistic statement showcasing his transition into rock 'n' roll. A month after the rough cuts of the film were in the can, Dylan would record his landmark single, “Like a Rolling Stone,” and a month after that he would perform his legendary electric set at the Newport Folk Festival, turning the folk revival on its head and igniting the famous Dylan controversy as he leapt into the progressive shoes that had been running ahead of him.
On first take, Dylan disliked the film, but on the second viewing, he realized what Pennebaker had achieved, and called it perfect. Don't Look Back premiered in San Francisco in May of 1967, and as in anything Dylan is involved with, the reviews were mixed. Newsweek wrote that Dylan was a genius who “does not know where his songs come from,” while Ralph Gleason wrote that the film is about the difficulties of the “artist communicating with his audience.” Sound familiar? A rising star filmmaker documenting a rising star musician, Pennebaker's arguable masterwork stands as a milestone not just for Dylan's turn of the corner as an artist, but in its influence on pioneering films like Night of the Living Dead and Easyriders that would soon change the industry.