At some point in every person's life, they realize that the world is not all they thought it was. Everyone and everything may not be inherently good; sometimes, the bad guy wins. As people grow up and move into adulthood, it is only natural for them to become more cynical to the world around them as they begin to see the world in a new way. The documentary Don't Look Back directed by D. A. Pennebaker is an observational documentary that chronicles Bob Dylan's 1965 tour in Britain, and at the same time, shows his change from a free spirited, optimistic youth, to a more cynical man.
Don't Look Back is an observational documentary, which traditionally means that the footage for the film was shot in a way that it would accurately represent the events it was portraying, without any sort of narration or guidance from the director of the film. This means that we don't really get a true chronological representation of Dylan's 1965 tour from Don't Look Back, but this does not mean that there isn't a story of sorts. This documentary focuses on Dylan's change from a free spirited youth to a more cynical adult as portrayed through his tour of Britain, so it is only fitting that it opens with Bob Dylan's arrival in London in 1965. Upon his arrival, Dylan seems happy and care free. A crowd of excited girls greets him at the airport, we hear him joking with his friends, singing "London Bridges" in a comically bad British accent, and we see him playfully banter with reporters in an interview.
As the movie progresses, we see Dylan in many different scenarios throughout his tour. Most of the footage in the movie is of Dylan back stage, in a hotel room, or in a car with his friends. In these scenes we get the impression that we're seeing the real Bob Dylan, not just the person that he is portrayed as, or he portrays himself as, in interviews and on stage. We also specifically see Bob Dylan interacting with different locals in different towns throughout his tour. We see him talking to a young Scottish boy near the beginning of his tour, and later on we see him interacting with some of his young female fans as they call to him from the street below his hotel window.
As the movie goes on, we start to see less and less of the carefree Bob Dylan from the beginning of the movie, and start to see more and more of the hostile and cynical Dylan. For example, we see him with a group of people in his hotel room during the second half of the movie, and he's much less agreeable then he was in previous scenes. We see Dylan yelling and arguing with people about who threw a glass bottle out a window, and we hear him complaining more, being more critical of other poets and singers. This scene shows Dylan beginning to become less open to the world and less optimistic, and becoming more cynical and pessimistic.
Near the end of the movie there is a scene that truly seals the deal on Bob Dylan's move to hostility. It is during an interview, not unlike the ones we see at the beginning of the movie, but this time we see a much different Dylan. Instead of playfully bantering with the reporter he openly attacks him, attacking everything from his job, to his lifestyle, to his intelligence. We hear Dylan ramble on and on about how the reporter's work is pointless, and how the magazine he works for is not legitimate, and it doesn't print the truth. It's scenes like this that really cement the idea in Don't Look Back that Bob Dylan has changed from optimistic to pessimistic and cynical.
One aspect of film making the Don't Look Back utilizes to its full extent is the figure expression aspect of mise-en-scene. Because Don't Look Back is an observational documentary, and therefore the camera moves as little as possible to maintain its integrity as just an observer, not interrupting or altering what it is observing in any way, it relies heavily on zooming in and very close up shots during conversations. This gives us a very detailed view of the speaker's facial expression and figure expression. For example, when we first see Bob Dylan in an interview in London, we see Dylan smiling more, his face looks relaxed, he doesn't have any lines or creases in his face to show that he is upset in any way. This relaxed facial expression and lack of signs of stress shows the viewer the carefree and happy Bob Dylan. His many smiles gives the viewer the impression that he isn't hostile or angry in any way; the relaxed stance he takes in a chair by leaning forward slightly to show interest, but not so far that he appears stressed, gives the viewer the impression that he is happy to give these reporters an interview and that they aren't bothering or pestering him. However, later on in the film, these close up shots and Bob Dylan's figure expression give us the opposite impression of him.
In the final interview we see Bob Dylan in, he's being interviewed by a reporter from Time Magazine, and for most of the interview the camera is focused in on a medium close up shot of Bob Dylan's. It is during this scene that we see a very different side of Bob Dylan. The relaxed pose of previous interviews is now gone, and instead we see Dylan leaning forward intently and rocking back and forth anxiously as he attacks this reporter from Time Magazine. These two separate stances have a twofold effect on our impression of Bob Dylan during this scene. The way he leans forward in his seat, with his neck sticking out in front of his chest pushing his head closer towards the reporter, makes it seem as if Dylan is trying to almost jump across the table to attack the reporter. This gives us a much more hostile impression of Dylan. The way he constantly moves from leaning forward to leaning back in his chair also emphasizes this version of Dylan. The constant movement makes him seem anxious by showing that he can't sit still. This coupled with the content of his attack against this reporter gives the viewer the impression that Bob Dylan is anxious to attack this reporter; anxious to let out some of his hostility that this tour has apparently grown inside of him.
Another aspect of filmmaking that is crucial to Don't Look Back is its sound. As a documentary about a musician, both diegetic and non-diegetic music is relied upon heavily to convey different messages in this film. This is especially effective because Dylan's songs are so intricate, and their lyrics can convey so much meaning, that the filmmaker can effectively use them to help convey his own meaning. For example, in one scene we see a flashback of Bob Dylan performing for a number of black workers on a farm, presumably in the United States. He sings a song there that centers on what we assume to be a white supremacist in the southern United States, and his death after having killed multiple black people in the South. Dylan sings about how the white man is not to blame, but he is in fact "Only a pawn in their game." This implies that Dylan is talking about the United States government, and how in many areas during this time it was doing little to nothing to stop racism and violent discrimination. Immediately following this scene, we see Dylan singing his song "The Times They are a Changin'" in a large concert hall somewhere in Britain during his 1965 tour. This song focuses on the fact that things in the world are changing, and that you must accept these changes or, in a way, be left behind. These two diegetic tracks played back to back convey two different messages. The first message they convey is that of Bob Dylan's interest in activism during the 1960s, and his interest in an end to racism in the United States.
While this is the obvious purpose behind playing these two tracks one after the other, I think there is a deeper meaning if we consider a few more aspects of film making used in these scenes. During his performance on the farm, Dylan's figurative expression makes him look emphatic about what he is singing: he closes his eyes, showing that he is emotional about what he is singing, and leans in towards the microphone in a way that makes him appear to almost desperately want to spread the message he is singing, giving the viewer the impression that he cares about what he is singing. This coupled with the content of the song makes Dylan seem both excited about what he is doing, and generally optimistic about the fact that there are social issues that he can help to address through his music. However, during his performance in London, his figurative expression is different. Instead of moving emphatically and showing that he genuinely cares about what he is singing, he just stands still and sings. This complacency shows us that he no longer is as excited about what he is singing, and therefore that he may be less optimistic about the impact his music can have. Here he seems more like an entertainer, and less of the preacher that we see him as when he performs on the farm. This gives us the impression that the times aren't necessarily changing in the way Dylan had thought they would earlier in his career and perhaps that it is instead his view of the world that is changing. It is in this way that the diegetic sounds in this scene are used effectively by the director.
Overall, Pennebaker is trying to use this film, and Dylan as his subject, to convey the idea that as we all age and go through more of life's experiences, it is common for us to stop seeing the world through rose colored glasses, and instead see the world as a more dismal and cynical place. The director does this by showing Bob Dylan's transition throughout his 1965 British tour from an excited young man, happy to be alive and doing what he loves, to a more tired and cynical man who seems to want nothing more than to be left alone. This message not only speaks to most people as they grow older, but it also speaks to Bob Dylan during this time in his career. For example, throughout this film we see Dylan change his belief on whether or not his fans actually understand or care about the meaning behind his songs. At the beginning, we hear Dylan tell a reporter that he is optimistic that his fans do in fact understand the songs, but by the end of the film the only thing Bob seems optimistic about is the fact that his songs may never be fully understood. This shows that Dylan has become dissatisfied with the fact that his songs are not appreciated as the poetry he sees them as, and helps to convey the directors idea that as we grow older, we all tend to see the world as a more cynical place. While this opinion of the message behind Don't Look Back is solidified by many facts in the film, many other critics believe the film has a much different meaning.
In his article "Don't You Ever Just Watch?" critic Jeanne Hall puts together a fairly solid argument for the idea that through Don't Look Back Pennebaker is critiquing the modern press and media at the time of the documentaries filming. Hall states that "Pennebaker's philosophy of filmmaking, much like Drew and Leacock's, can be seen to grow out of a liberal concern for the proprer role of the press in democratic societies." (Hall 3). Hall builds this argument up around the way that Dylan treats reporters and other members of the press throughout the film. However, what Hall does not address is how Dylan treats reporters at the beginning of the film. For example, in one scene where Dylan is first arriving at the airport he has a short, but polite, conversation with one man about what is different about his career this time he is in London. In the beginning of the film we also see Bob giving interviews to reporters in a very informal manner, but he still answers their questions politely enough and happily jokes around with them to try to get a laugh. When we really examine all of this information from the beginning of the film, I think it is Hall's own central argument that seals the deal that this film is not about a critique of media, but is instead about Dylan's movement from optimism to cynicism.
In his article, Hall focuses heavily on the scene where Dylan attacks the reporter from Time magazine. Hall writes that "The sheer savagery of the attack remains shocking today..." (Hall 4). And while Hall is correct that the savagery of this attack is quite shocking, he fails to see the true purpose behind the inclusion of this scene. It is not to show the negative aspects of the press, but it is instead to contrast with the interviews that Dylan gives at the beginning of the film, showing how throughout this tour Dylan has become an overall more pessimistic and hostile person.
Overall, Don't Look Back is a good film. It does a great job of being an observational documentary, giving us the impression that we are seeing these events as they actually occurred, and convincing us that we are getting to see the real Bob Dylan. But even more than that, Don't Look Back does a great job of conveying a message about growing up, the transition from youth to adulthood, and the woes and concerns that come along with that transition. It is for these reasons that I would recommend Don't Look Back to anyone who is not attached to a movie having a very concrete story, and anyone looking for a movie with a deeper meaning then what is seen on the surface.