Dont Look Back

(D.A. Pennebaker, USA, 1967): “God, I’m glad I’m not me,” chuckles Bob Dylan over a newspaper article as he’s being schlepped by limo to the next gig in his ten day English tour of 1965. Then he adjusts his heavy-duty shades, rests sharp chin in those delicate hands, and stares out at the scenery, lost to us again.

Shot at an especially intricate intersection in the 23 year old singer’s already decidedly elusive campaign to reign as the world’s most elusive and unpredictable pop star, just as Dylan had released the semi-electrified Bringing It All Back Home and weeks before he’d hit the studio locked and loaded with Like a Rolling Stone and make that legendary amplified ruckus at Newport, D.A. Pennebaker’s direct cinema landmark is itself a stubbornly cantankerous and evasive document, a dodge-and-feint movie about a man isn’t there. Oddly enough, when it comes to something like documentary realism or psychological insight, you’re far better off watching Todd Haynes’ meta-fictional I’m Not There, in which Dylan is impersonated by a half-dozen actors.

In this movie, the many sides of Bob Dylan include the prolix wit, the entitled brat, the coldly competitive careerist, the insensitive former lover, the touchingly indulgent fan obliger, the bullying prima donna, the imperviously industrious, hermetically sealed composer-poet, and — perhaps hardest to take at the time but ultimately the most enduring and perhaps even reassuringly useful of them all — the king shit prick of monumental proportions. As a particularly indelible study in the time-tested co-dependency of genius and assholery, Dont Look Back is a primal text.

Nevertheless, and more the point precisely because, Dont Look Back maintains its formidable power to fascinate fifty years on by sheer virtue of the synching up of the catch-as-catch-can, incidentally attentive formal strategy deployed by the former Time-Life documentarist and Dylan’s own predilection for calculated, contradictory and ultimately stingy self-revelation. As clearly jacked as the guy is by all the attention he’s getting and relentless attempts to pin him down — as a folk singer, pop star, generational spokesman and even teen idol — Dylan’s most impressive performance in this movie that’s otherwise notoriously cheap with the musical numbers (especially for a concert tour chronicle) is as the man fully in control of what we will and will not know about him.

Apart from the purely mesmerizing quality of the low-tech aesthetics — Pennebaker shot the movie on a hand-rigged camera strapped to his shoulder that whirs audibly in many scenes — the other factor bolstering the movie’s propulsive watchability is its uncanny understanding that the real show here is the capturing of the ‘private’ Dylan as itself a form of performance: that there is no man to be seen behind the man we see. Even in these ostensibly offstage spaces — the hotel rooms, dressing rooms, limos, lobbies and darkened stage wings — the show never stops. In this sense, the interminably echoed charge that Pennebaker botched matters by not recording more than a snatch or two of any of the live performances, qualifies as one of the more idiotic criticisms in the annals of idiotic criticism. In this movie, the performance we’re watching is the one that ends when Dylan takes the stage — typically beneath a distant spotlight in a vast, black space — and resumes once he walks off. Talk about balls and visionary insight: Dont Look Back is making the suggestion — baffling, startling if not outright heretical for its time — that maybe Bob Dylan’s greatest feat of creative composition was himself.

As a touchstone of a time when the deconstruction of pop personas provided a motivating factor in the rise of a fleetingly revelatory but quickly commodified documentary technique — spanning roughly from Lonely Boy through Gimme Shelter, and providing critical inspiration for A Hard Day’s NightCharlie is My DarlingPrivilege, Monterey Pop, One Plus One, Medium Cool, Let it Be and even The Monkees — Pennebaker’s act of stealth pop bubble-bursting remains perhaps the most subversive of them all, the first one to storm the gates, infiltrate the barriers, penetrate the walls, and reveal the fact the player never really stops playing, especially when it comes to playing us and himself. Maybe this is not only the true subject of the movie, but of the entire campaign of necessary but futile pop star surface stripping that drove documentary through the decade: the black hole of truth and the blind faith we’ll find it. Wake up ye dreamers of revelation: it’s showbiz, folks. (Docurama, Criterion)