Released in 1967 Dont Look Back is a fly on the wall documentary following Bob Dylan during his ten day tour of the UK in April/May 1965. Falling just over a month after the release of Bringing It All Back Home, the film captures Dylan at a fascinating turning point of his career. Dont Look Back is also particularly notable with D. A. Pennebaker being given a level of access to the enigmatic Dylan that has not been seen since. That said, Eat The Document, Dylan and Pennebaker’s rather unsuccessful attempt to film his 1966 UK tour may have played a role in this change of heart.
Although Dont Look Back famously begins with the groundbreaking “music video” for “Subterranean Homesick Blues” (which also served as the trailer), it’s interesting to note that for all of the shows on this tour Dylan performed solo with just an acoustic guitar and harmonica. Subsequently the music and performances in the film are grounded in folk music, while Dylan’s attitude throughout is recognisable as that of a rock star.
Dont Look Back cold opens with Bob Dylan standing in an alleyway holding a large handwritten sign saying “Basement”, as “Subterranean Homesick Blues” starts playing. As the soundtrack plays “Johnny’s in the basement”, Dylan throws away the first card to reveal one saying “Medicine” which is discarded after the line “mixing up the medicine” is completed, to show another sign saying “Pavement”. The Subterranean Homesick Blues video is credited with being one of the pioneering music videos and its use of a series of cards displaying lyrics has become a pop culture reference regularly used in music videos, films, television and advertising.
Following “Subterranean Homesick Blues” is a quick burst of “All I Really Want To Do” accompanying a brief and rudimentary credits sequence. One of the things that separates Dont Look Back from other music documentaries is, well, the lack of music. Apart from a reasonably complete live performance of “The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll”, we are only given very brief snippets of live performances. What the film shows instead are impromptu performances in hotel rooms by Dylan and his entourage or Dylan backstage on a guitar or piano warming up for a show.
The movie proper opens with Dylan and his entourage arriving at Heathrow, fending off crowds and reporters before being thrown into a press conference. The opening press conference of the film shows Dylan in good humour, but clearly tired of being asked the same questions. The clueless questions and Dylan’s amused handling of them is reminiscent of many of the early Beatles press conferences, with so many perfect responses:
Q: What is your real message?
A: Keep a good head and always carry a lightbulb.
Q: Would you say that you cared about people, particularly?
A: Well, yeah, but we all have our own definitions of all those words. “Care” and “people” and…
Q: You sound angry in your songs, are you protesting against certain things that you’re angry about?
A: I’m not angry. I’m delightful.
At the end of the press conference a photographer taking photos of Joan Baez is getting frustrated by her unwillingness to pose for him. When he asks her name to print with the photo only when she spells out “B-A-E-Z” does he realise who she is. This scene then cuts to Dylan reading a newspaper article the next day to the laughter of the gathered group: “Puffing heavily on his cigarette. He smokes 80 a day”, before adding “I’m glad I’m not me”.
Dylan is shown throughout the film fascinated by, but also increasingly contemptuous of the media. In interview after interview he is asked either the same or increasingly inane questions and his responses become more hostile over the course of the ten days. This culminates in the famous Time Magazine interview prior to the Royal Albert Hall show where Dylan repeatedly attacks and dismisses the reporter and his publication (“You’ll call me a folk singer”; “I don’t need Time Magazine”; “If I want to find out anything I’m not going to read Time Magazine”). Yet in the memorable final scene driving away from that show, Dylan and Albert Grossman are again talking about what the media are saying about him. When Grossman tells him “They’ve started calling you an anarchist… because you don’t give any answers”, Dylan considering this says “Give me the cigarette. Give the anarchist a cigarette” and then amused adds “Anarchist? A singer such as I?”.
Throughout the film Bob Dylan can be seen distancing himself from his past. Even though each of his eight shows on the tour are ostensibly folk music with Dylan alone on stage with an acoustic guitar and harmonica, off stage he can be seen dissociating himself from that music. In the opening press conference when asked about folk music he answers “No, no, no. Not me, I’m not folk” and when told that “The Times They Are A-Changin’” is charting at number 16, he is dismissive and immediately asks where Subterranean Homesick Blues is in the chart. Most tellingly when one of the young fans brought up to the hotel room says “I don’t like any of the “Subterranean Homesick Blues””, his response is “You’re that kind of person, I understand right now”, before wryly adding “My friends were playing with me on that song. I have to give work to my friends”.
A significant portion of Dont Look Back, occurs in a series of hotel rooms. This space is portrayed both in chaos and as a retreat. The first shots of a hotel room features a large crowd of Dylan’s entourage and various hangers-on. When we return to the hotel, it is considerably more laid back with Dylan sitting at a typewriter while Joan Baez sings in the background, before Dylan stops typing and joins Baez in a duet. This contrast is observed with the line “It’s the first time this room hasn’t been full of a bunch of insane lunatics, man, that I can remember” and the response “Yeah, it’s the first time it’s been cool around here”.
The hotel room scenes generally show one of three things: Dylan at work, Dylan dealing with annoying interlopers or musical performances. The frequency we are shown Dylan at the typewriter serves as a reminder of just how prolific he was during this period with Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde both recorded and released in the twelve months following this tour. The intrusions into his private space are demonstrated in the most extreme when Dylan is trying to find out who threw a glass out of his hotel room and gets into an altercation with an aggressive drunk who was brought along by one of the many people in his room. Probably most interesting, however, is that we are given the longest musical performances in the film in hotel rooms. The most notable of these impromptu hotel performances is when Donovan sings the rather tepid “To Sing For You”, before being mercilessly upstaged by a brilliant performance of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” by Dylan.
Much of Dont Look Back also takes place backstage, more so than on-stage. So much so that one of the longest performances we see of Dylan on stage is taking from backstage as he tries to perform “The Times They Are A-Changin’” through a sound failure. While Dylan plays on unamplified, we are shown the crew frantically running around backstage trying to fix the problem. Once the sound is restored there is a cheer from the crowd and an immediate cut to Dylan travelling in a car with the same song playing on the radio. Similarly, we are later shown a brief snippet of a live performance of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” which soon cuts to Dylan travelling on a train to Manchester as the music continues over this footage.
Like many of the hotel room scenes, backstage we regularly see Dylan being interrupted and hassled by fans and strangers. One of the most memorable of these scenes is where his car is mobbed as they try to leave a venue, from inside the car we hear the banging on the roof and the concern for the safety of a girl who has grabbed onto the back of the car as it has driven off (“There’s a chick on the back of the car”). There’s also the series of bizarre conversations backstage before one show starting with the “science student” (actually co-founder of Chrysalis Records Terry Ellis) who at first is boring and annoying Dylan with his barrage of odd questions, before Dylan’s demeanour changes and he appears to take an interest in order to tear him down instead. Dylan is then dragged away from this for a truly bizarre encounter with “The High Sherriff’s Wife” and her three sons, throughout which Dylan remains both polite and amused.
For one show on the tour we are shown a sound check, which then cuts to a handheld camera following Dylan walking around backstage opening doors and going up and down stairs, trying to find his way around the back of the venue (a scene that obviously brings to mind This Is Spinal Tap), but rather than finally walking out onto the stage, he exits the venue and gets into the waiting car. Dont Look Back shows more of the Royal Albert Hall performance than any of his other shows on the tour, however, musically we only see twenty or thirty second segments of a handful of different songs. Instead, the film shows more of Dylan backstage at the venue, whether that’s walking through the stalls prior to the show or a lengthy scene sitting in the dressing room unmotivated to return for an encore (“Actually, the applause, it’s kinda bullshit”; “Better do something else, they’re just sat there waiting”).
There are very few scenes in Dont Look Back which don’t feature Dylan and these offer some interesting insights. The most fascinating (and longest) shows Albert Grossman and music agent Tito Burns trying to negotiate larger fees for Dylan’s UK television appearances. Grossman’s ruthlessness in negotiations is notably different to his amiable and paternal relationship with Dylan and his entourage. The interview with the fans waiting outside Dylan’s hotel makes for an interesting contrast to their demeanour when they are brought up to the hotel room to meet their idol.
Dont Look Back gives not only a fascinating insight into Bob Dylan at the crossroads of his career, endeavouring to separate himself from his folk singer persona, but also as a record of life on the road in that era. The film pays little regard to the actual live performances of the tour, with these seemingly secondary to talking to journalists, fans and other hangers on, or hanging out backstage or in hotel rooms, making music with the various members of the entourage. The influence of the film is unmistakable with its structure no doubt familiar to viewers of “rockumentaries” such as Gimme Shelter, LoudQUIETloud, The Road To God Knows Where and, of course, the parodies Bob Roberts and This Is Spinal Tap.
November 17, 2015 at 5:34 am
I laughed at Dylan’s response, “I’m not angry. I’m delightful.” I think I’m going to use that one!
I’ve heard of this film but have never gone out of my way to find it. However, I think I’ll make an effort now that I’ve read your excellent post.
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November 17, 2015 at 8:51 am
Thanks for the comments. The Criterion edition is out next week, which will make it easier to find and give me an excellent excuse to watch it again.
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