Don't Look Back
Plot: D.A. Pennebaker follows Bob Dylan and posse around England during a mid-60's tour.
"Keep a good head and always carry a light bulb."
I've seen this a few times and, after popping it in to celebrate Dylan winning the Nobel Prize for literature, was surprised that it wasn't on the blog already. I first watched this soon after becoming a Dylan fan and didn't like it very much. It was nice seeing the intimate live stuff, but I couldn't figure out what the point was as it really doesn't build any sort of narrative at all. Plus, I thought Dylan came across like a real asshole.
Watching it now, I love it because it doesn't really have a point and because Dylan comes across like a real asshole. The Pennebaker fly-on-the-wall approach doesn't need a narrative and doesn't need to answer any questions. It's a slice of a life that is otherwise impenetrable. Dylan was a riddle incarnate then and only became more of a riddle as he became reclusive later that decade, and this is easily the most intimate look people could get of the human being unless you count Blood on the Tracks or Time out of Mind which are at least lyrically intimate. Pennebaker's camera work is freewheeling and dirty, the camera often looking for something to focus on and not always even finding it. Other times, the camera magically winds up exactly where it needs to be, almost as if the whole thing is scripted. But the viewer never feels like he's not right there, engaged in the shenanigans, almost like he's snuck into these rooms and the people who really belong there just haven't figured it out yet. Meanwhile, that camera buzzes around, draws way too close to people's faces, lingers over piano-playing fingers, catches discomfort of other people who figure out that they don't really belong there.
And Dylan really is a prick. He's nasty with Donovan, weirdly because it's almost like a competitive insecurity. He's future Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan, an artist at the peak of his powers, and he's jealous of Donovan? Dylan was never affable with the media, probably for good reason, and you can just tell he's a guy who has no interest in making time for the people who he has no time for. He's not a jerk during interactions with fans or with the people in his circle, however. But most of the time, yeah, he's kind of a prick. But to me, that just makes this whole thing seem that much more honest. Dylan knew those cameras were there, yet this is the version of himself that he gives. There's no doubt in my mind that some of this is performance, the star deliberately going out of his way to seem jerky. Look no further than the episode with the broken bottle for evidence of that. And I have no idea why that's who Dylan wanted to be on screen, but as I said earlier, the guy is a riddle. And he probably really is a bit of a prick.
One of the best things about this is seeing a guy who at times looks really tiny but who at the same time is absolutely larger than life. Another visual contradiction: Dylan is constantly surrounded with an entourage or swarms of fans--some even climbing on cars he's riding in--at all times, but at the same time, he seems very lonely.
The performances are all about what you'd expect. Dylan's a better songwriter than a performer, but you can't take your eyes off his face during the performances, partly because it's the only thing to look at and partly because he's got this incredible focus. I imagine it's because he's trying to remember the difficult streams of lyrics to songs like "Don't Think Twice, Ma." My favorite song moments are the off-the-cuff backstage or hotel room dick-arounds where Dylan's just sitting at a piano or doing things with Baez. And I really love the moment where he listens and obviously digs a Donovan song and then shares one of his.
Raw, intimate, honest, and surprisingly kind of emotional, this is just about a perfect look at a musician becoming an icon who is at a crossroads in his career and life. Great stuff.