As if capturing a momentous period in Bob Dylan’s career and crafting one of the best and earliest examples of a major cinematic movement — cinema vérité — with “Dont Look Back” weren’t monumental achievements enough, D.A. Pennebaker began his seminal film with what would be recognized decades later as perhaps the first music video. Ironically, this opening sequence, set to Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” is one of several instances in the film where Pennebaker strays from the tenets of vérité: in an overtly staged performance (which in fact was shot in alternate takes in two other locales) with Dylan playing to the camera, the singer/songwriter lets a series of placards do his lip-synching for him. In a wide-legged stance, boards with various lyrics and riffs on lyrics (written out by Allen Ginsberg — who appears loitering in the background — Bob Neuwirth and Donovan, the film’s delectable Dylan frenemy) stacked in his right arm, an affectless Dylan tosses corresponding cards to the ground as his Beat-inflected lyrics fly by.
Shot in one take, the sequence was Dylan’s idea, and despite his manager Albert Grossman’s involvement as a producer of “Dont Look Back,” it’s probably the best if not the only example of the control Dylan was able to exert over the project. Control, of course, or unfettered access, is a vérité director’s lifeblood, and one of the marvelous things about looking at “Dont Look Back” today is the atypically candid (or candid-seeming, but more on that in a minute) portrait we get of an artist who came to guard himself from portraiture almost completely in its wake.
In the spring of 1965, Pennebaker followed Dylan over four days of his tour of England, just as fame was beginning to take its confounding hold on his life and career. The involvement of Grossman, as Richard Goldstein suggested in his 1967 New York Times review, does leave the film open to accusations of leaning toward a “commissioned portrait,” with Pennebaker’s access granted as conditional to flattering this young star on the make. But then Grossman, who’s featured in the film in a couple of unsavory sequences, comes off worse than anyone, and Dylan reveals himself, almost immediately, to be no fan of publicity. One need only revisit the film these years later to confirm that Pennebaker was up to something more.
“Dont Look Back” is often cited as a watershed film, though it’s more accurately a well-timed culmination of several of its forerunners, beginning with Robert Drew’s 1960 political doc “Primary” and Wolf Koenig and Roman Kroitor’s 1962 NFB short “Lonely Boy,” which follows Paul Anka as he attempts to transition from teen to adult performer. “What’s Happening! The Beatles in the USA,” the Maysles’ 1964 documentary about the Beatles’ arrival in the United States fleshes out the model Pennebaker would use a little further. Combining his subject, an unlikely idol and ambivalent star on whom the mantle of truth-teller and generational prophet had fallen, and the nascent filmic mode of “truth-telling,” whose host of signifiers were all meant to suggest an authentic presentation of “reality,” resulted in its own star-making moment for Pennebaker, who’s worked steadily in film — and often rock documentaries, a genre his film would influence heavily — ever since.
Despite having no overt narrative structure other than “Bob Dylan Tours England,” Pennebaker shot enough film to create a supple, nuanced structure in the editing room. What was innovative about “Dont Look Back” when it was released in 1967 remains so contemporarily, not only because we can now recognize its style as having infected both feature films and television, where hand-held cameras, natural light and locations and unobtrusive, minimal crew has come to connote “reality,” but because so many of the rock documentaries of today can’t match its stylistic invention.