Skip to main content

Bob Dylan '65 Revisited: Looking Back on 'Don't Look Back' Documentary

By Tom White

Bob Dylan, a white man with curly hair, performs on stage with a photographer snapping a photo. A still from 'Don't Look Back'. Courtesy of Pennebaker Hegedus Films

When Bob Dylan met DA Pennebaker in 1965, the singer/songwriter had earned acclaim as the forerunner of the folk genre, with four groundbreaking albums to his credit and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of songs in his head. To his contemporaries he was both the heir apparent to Woody Guthrie and the wise and mischievous little brother of the Beat Generation.

Pennebaker had been making films for over ten years, working first with such pioneers as Shirley Clarke and Willard van Dyke, then as part of the legendary Drew Associates team that included Robert Drew, Albert and David Maysles and Richard Leacock. Such cinema vérité classics as Primary (1960) and Crisis (1963)—two of the first documentaries shot in portable synch sound equipment and hand-held cameras— would open up new frontiers for the documentary form. Pennebaker and Leacock broke away from Drew Associates shortly after making Crisis.

Dylan knew of Pennebaker’s work through a friend who worked at Time-Life, which had handled some of Drew Associates’ films. He had seen Pennebaker’s first film, Daybreak Express (1953), a five-minute piece on the 3rd Avenue El train that included music by Duke Ellington. Dylan was also struck with a film that Pennebaker had made with Leacock about the classical cellist Pablo Casals. “It was interesting for [Dylan],” says Pennebaker. “He saw these kids running after Casals’ car, and we were running after the kids. It was filmmaking on the fly, and it intrigued him.”

It was Albert Grossman, Dylan’s manager, who approached Pennebaker about making a film about his client’s upcoming solo acoustic tour of England. Although he didn’t know much about Dylan at the time, Pennebaker agreed to do it, and his interest was piqued when he later met his subject. “I met him at the Cedar Tavern [in Greenwich Village],” he recalls. “He and [tour manager] Bob Neuwirth and I talked about what would make an interesting film. There was a woman sitting in the corner of the bar, and Dylan asked me if I thought it was Lotte Lenya. It wasn’t, but I was interested that he even knew who she was. So right away I thought this is someone to think about.”

Dylan came up with the idea of the card sequence to his song “Subterranean Homesick Blues” that opens the film, and Pennebaker had decided that he and his crew—Howard Alk, assistant camera; Jones Salk, sound; and J. Robert Van Dyke, concert sound— would record every concert. Otherwise, it was vérité as usual. “I was just going to go along and watch what happened,” he asserts. “But that’s kind of the way I operated anyway, so that wasn’t a new idea for me. I didn’t need any plans or concept particularly. Happily, they didn’t want to make one, either.”

While Dylan was approaching iconic status at the time, the mainstream media on both sides of the Atlantic didn’t quite know what to make of him. Throughout the film, Dylan is at times coy and respectful with the media, and at other times, arrogant and confrontational. This is a rock ’n’ roll star in the making, and he’s amused enough about this imposed evolution to stay a few steps ahead of it. He handles press conferences with his customary wry wit, then reads accounts of the sessions the next day. “[Dylan’s] take on media was such that people who work for somebody else came to talk to him, and clearly were going to go back to the somebody else they worked for and report as best they could on something they didn’t understand,” Pennebaker recalls. “I think this was suffering fools for him, but he did it with good humor because he saw that the press conference was a kind of art in itself.”

Given that Pennebaker shot 20 hours of film over a three-week period, Dylan is certainly aware of the camera, as most vérité subjects are, and betrays an occasional hint of vanity—playing up the media-stoked rivalry with emerging British pop star Donovan, and gently mocking Donovan himself. “In a way he was inventing himself,” Pennebaker reflects. “And he was still in the process, and trying it out on people he knew. He was trying out different versions of himself. That’s the way he wanted to work. As the filmmaker, I was just one more person to try stuff on.”

Of course, there’s the power of Dylan’s music, which is evident throughout the film—in concert, in the hotel room, in the car, and backstage. But Pennebaker resisted making Don’t Look Back a concert film. He gives us enough of a given song to enjoy it, but not to let the songs dominate or inform the film. “I think you could have made that film many different ways,” he says. “But for me, that was the way the trip was. While I was knocked out by the songs, what I really wanted was the songs intermixed with the guy. That was the feeling I had. I wanted to write a novel, not a collection of songs.”

Pennebaker would go on in his career to make both concert documentaries, such as Monterey Pop (1968) and Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1973), and vérité pieces on performing artists such as Carol Burnett and Jerry Lee Lewis. Choosing between a concert film and a nonfiction narrative depends on the situation. “With Monterey Pop, it never occurred to me to interview anybody there, once we started getting the performances; it seemed to me that should be the film. But not always. If I were to go back to do Monterey Pop now, I might well go talk to people, but I generally don’t like to do that because it seems artificial to me in most situations. But it isn’t always.”

Pennebaker’s latest film, made with his partner Chris Hegedus and Nick Doob, is Down from the Mountain, which celebrates the bluegrass music that figures so prominently in Ethan and Joel Cohn’s film O Brother, Where Art Thou? “In the beginning, I wasn’t sure what to do,” Pennebaker says. “I didn’t want to make that a concert film, but I had to show the performances because that was the meat and potatoes of what was going on. We had to figure out how to get people into it in other ways, without just sitting them down and having them tell us their life story, so we turned a lot of people loose with tiny DV cameras. And that was what made the thing work: those little cameras and the informality of the way that they infiltrated the people backstage.”

One would think that Dont Look Back, with one of the seminal figures of the 1960s as its star, would have no trouble finding a distributor. But Pennebaker couldn’t even convince Columbia Records, Dylan’s recording label, to help finance the production. So after he produced a 16mm print, he took it around to colleges and universities. Eventually, the Presidio, a former porno theater in San Francisco, showed an interest in it, and the film played there for a year—and generated interest from theaters across the country and in Europe. Pennebaker produced a 35mm print for a New York run that was so successful that his company didn’t need to run ads.

And what did Bob Dylan think of the film? “It was kind of a heavy thing to see yourself in a way revealed,” Pennebaker reflects. “And he’s a person who doesn’t like to reveal himself very much to people he doesn’t know—or even to people he does know. He’s a very secretive person, and he was just amazed and surprised that this dumb camera with one person running it could do that. But when he thought about it 24 hours later, he realized it was something complete; he couldn’t touch it or change it or improve it or take things out that were embarrassing. That has always kind of amazed me, and I had always been grateful that it came down like that because you could have terrible problems when you do these things with people.”

In fact, Dylan approached Pennebaker the next year about making a special for ABC television—with Dylan directing and Pennebaker shooting. The film would be about Dylan’s 1966 British tour with The Band, a tour that would raise the hackles of the fans who strongly objected to his “going electric.” Pennebaker and tour manager Bob Neuwirth started to edit the film, then Dylan and cameraman Howard Alk re-edited it. The resulting film, Eat The Document, was never shown on ABC, and wasn’t screened publicly until 1998, at the Museum of Radio and Television in New York and Los Angeles.

Dylan and Pennebaker would go their separate ways, continuing to produce great work over the next few decades. But Don’t Look Back was the crossroads, where two artists on the brink of mining new territory would make beautiful music together.

Thomas White has been a Dylan fan—with the exception of the “born-again” period of the late 70s and early 80s—since he was ten.

Southern California audiences will have a chance to see Dont Look Back on August 3 on the big screen at the John Anson Ford Theater in Los Angeles. The evening will include a live musical performance and a tribute to DA Pennebaker.