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I'm a huge fan of both Bob Dylan and D.A. Pennebaker's documentaries, so to me, this was a no-brainer to watch, especially this vintage. I was fortunate to catch Dylan live, after his life-threatening bout of pericarditis, in Ann Arbor, Michigan at the Hill Auditorium with the Kenny Wayne Shepherd band as support, but how amazing it would have been to have caught him live on this British tour, from a generation earlier.
I would have given it a perfect rating, but I docked a mark for him making fun of Donovan, for crying out loud.
Every scene and every conversation feels like we're looking through a 2-way mirror into the everyday life of arguably the most prolific artist in American history.
Dylan came off as less of a jerk upon this viewing than he has in the past. Don't get me wrong ... I think this is an amazing documentary. It's groundbreaking in the way it applies Pennebaker's avant-garde style to popular subject matter, and there's an amazing depth of material to discover. Every time I watch it I discover new things in it. But Dylan's just not a very admirable guy in this film. I think these days I'm more prone to recognize him as a fairly smart guy caught up in a swirl of fame that he doesn't exactly know how to cope with and not just a mean, callow jerk. Except that occasionally (like when talking to the reporter from Time), he's pretty much just a mean, callow jerk.
Hyper-realism film, really worth the watch.
One of the greats in documentary history! This masterpiece from influential cinema verite filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker, follows Bob Dylan on his 1965 concert tour of England. The film gives the viewer an interesting behind-the-scenes look at what goes into making the concert tour possible, and includes some great music! For film and music fans!
A pioneering documentary that captures the incomparable Dylan in a extremely honest way. This was among the very first back-stage documentaries that truly captured a rock artist, warts and all. Dylan was not shy or unafraid to show himself not always in the most flattering way. With his small camera, Pennebaker's fly-on-the-wall approach would become hugely influential. This also captures Dylan on the brink of revolutionizing rock n' roll, his electric phase was just around the corner. This documentary also features what would become the first music video - the legendary shot of Dylan holding cards of the lyrics to Subterranean Homesick Blues (which incidentally, it also considered the first rap song). Bottom line: Bob Dylan is the Shakespeare of popular music and Pennebaker's documentary would inspire millions to do the same.
A subtle, insightful look into Bob Dylan's philosophical views more than his fame, Don't Look Back is often complimentary and thought-provoking, adding new tastes to the documentary genre by letting the subject dictate the film's output.
Don't Look Back is an observational film directed by D.A. Pennebaker about Bob Dylan's England tour from April 30, 1965 to May 10,1965. During this time he preforms in Sheffield, Liverpool, Leicester, Birmingham, Newcastle, Manchester, and London. The main star of the film, Bob Dylan, is an American folk singer-songwriter and activist who became famous in the 1960s. His lyrics are famous for their powerful political, social, and philosophical meanings. A constant presence throughout the film is Joan Baez. She is an American fold singer-songwriter who dated Bob Dylan from 1963 to 1965. Joan Baez, like Dylan, is an activist for human rights and other social political movements. One of the more forceful characters is Albert Grossman. He represented Bob Dylan from 1962 to 1970 and is famous for his aggressive management style. Pennebaker promotes his belief that the media is biased through scene selection, mise-en-scene and sound in Don't Look Back.
Media bias is a common theme throughout the plot of Don't Look Back. In Bob Dylan's first interview in England, the reporters interrogate him about reading the Bible, and if his fans understand the meanings of his lyrics. Bob Dylan confronts the reporters several times about their own opinions during the interviews. When Dylan's treatment of these reporters and the reporter from the African Service of BBC are placed in juxtaposition, the difference is evident. In interview with African Service of BBC, Bob Dylan treats the reporter with more respect than any of the other media personnel that he interacts with in the movie. The questions posed to Dylan are less superficial regarding his humanitarian efforts rather than insulting his fans' intelligence. A science student, Terry Ellis, questions Bob Dylan while backstage before a concert. They discuss friendship, and why people form preconceived notions of others. Like with Terry, Bob Dylan challenges the Times reporter on several topics from the media to what "truth" means. This scene lacks many of the commonalities of an interview because Bob Dylan hijacks the event and rants for most of the scene about the media.
In Don't Look Back, Pennebaker uses mise-en-scene to make me dislike the media and view them as biased. While singing or hanging around with his friends Bob Dylan is always relaxed. His shoulders are down, his mouth is often turned up in a smile, or he is singing. These scenes make me sympathize with Bob Dylan and make me feel like I am there and happy with him. Compared to the interviews in which figure movement and expression such as his shoulders raising up, lips pursing and pulling straight, and his movements are tight and controlled. In the interview with the times reporter he leans forward, angling his shoulders toward the reporter. This makes me feel that the interviews are always confrontational events. The scenes of him with his friends evoke empathy in me toward Bob Dylan. The figure expression and movement of the interviews makes me dislike the media because I emphasize with Dylan, and I do not like to see him distressed. During the interview with Terry Ellis, Dylan waves his hand from the middle of his chest outward several times. I feel the motion dismisses Terry's answers as unimportant, and that Dylan's characterization of the media and the science student as biased are correct. Mise-en-scene is used to evoke an affinity in me toward Dylan and Pennebaker's worldview that the media is biased.
The cinematic style of sound is used by Pennebaker to promote the idea that the media is biased. In both the interview with the science student and the Times reporter his voice takes on a condescending tone. His pitch increases as he rants at the Times reporter. His voice becomes louder and higher pitched when he tells the reporter, "How can I answer that question if you have the nerve to ask me," when he is asked if he cares about what he writes his songs about. The volume, pitch, and timber of his voice when he is talking to the reporters make his distain for them obvious. I find myself feeling angry at the reporters and agreeing with Dylan that the media is biased due to the sound of the scenes.
Pennebaker is advocating the worldview that the media is a biased through mise-en-scene, sound, and scene selection. I am inclined to believe Bob Dylan's option on media bias presented in the film rather than feel sympathy for the media personal due the cinematic styles of mise-en-scene and sound. Pennebaker uses mise-en-scene and sound to evoke the emotions of anger and dislike in me toward the media by selecting scenes that contain disputes between Bob Dylan and the media. Regarding Bob Dylan's analysis of the media in Don't Look Back, Jeanne Hall in Documenting the Documentary says, "This level of analysis concerns itself with news organization in reason to society as a whole - the unwritten social and cultural guidelines they follow and the implicit ideological assumption they make" (Hall 231). In the middle of the film Bob Dylan even says, "All of the information presented by the media is lies and rubbish." The media are portrayed as judgmental often asking him about religion and if he has read the Bible or not. They also are portrayed as judging his fans as unintelligent. In the first and last interviews he is asked if he feels his listeners really understand his lyrics because they have meaning. The reporters show their bias in this question because it is obvious due to the langue the media view Dylan's fans as unintelligent. Bob Dylan explicitly points out the media's bias when he says, "And I don't think I'm a folk singer. You'll probably call me a folk singer, but you know, other people will know better." The media has already decided that Bob Dylan is a folk singer so nothing, not even the truth, will change their minds. Because of mise-en-scene, sound, and scene selection, Pennebaker's belief that the media is biased is both obvious and powerful.
I enjoyed watching this film, and I highly recommend it. Don't Look Back affected my options of the media, and it has given me a greater appreciation of Bob Dylan's early work. The film in is in black and white and the quality is poor compared to modern day film due to it being over forty years old; but it is an excellent documentary on the music scene, the media, and society in the 1960s.
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.
Off the Stage
A young folk singer, Bob Dylan performs not to show off his melodies or his harmonica skills but rather his poetic lyrics. Although he never explicitly describes the meaning of his lyrics, the beauty of his songs lies in that the audience creates its own interpretations. Don't Look Back, a 1967 observational documentary directed and filmed by D. A. Pennebaker, documents the stepping stone in the musical career of the man known for his nasal voice, leathery jacket, brushy hair, cigarette and sneering look. Although his overall success and countless awards reflect his revolutionary talent and ambition, I believe this documentary successfully distinguishes the sharp line dividing his musical talent from his self-important and inflated character.
Don't Look Back documents Dylan's 1965 tour around England, showing his casual conversations with friends, apathetic but sometimes engaging interviews, outstanding performances both on and off stage, and the occasional encounters with his fans. From the beginning, Dylan does not expect much as he comments to a stranger, "I figured just do the same thing I did before." What he does not realize, however, is that this tour and its events gradually changes Dylan musically and characteristically, as shown through this documentary. He begins his tour at Sheffield City Hall with one of his most famous songs, "The Times They Are a-Changing", as he does with every concert. Throughout the film, Albert Grossman, Dylan's manager, makes his unforgettable appearances; one scene he confronts one of the hotel managers who tries to silence the chatters. Soon after the manager steps in Dylan's room, Grossman starts calling him names like, "stupid nut" and "dumb". All the while Dylan is chuckling at the unnecessary seriousness of the situation. After he performs several concerts, he speaks a word with the High Sheriff's wife who tells him how much she appreciates his music and invites him they share their songs together. He also has his long-wished meeting with his musical rival, Donovan. The film reveals much of Dylan's character and successfully depicts him as an individual, which most interviewers only attempted to do.
D. A. Pennebaker intelligibly shows the difference in Dylan's musical talent and his character through his use of film techniques during the scene with the science student. This is the only part of the film where the mis-en-scene shows both of his character and of him playing his guitar. The director is clearly trying to show how his music does not necessarily define who he is and that the only real reason people respect him so much is his revolutionary and ingenious music-not his character. Throughout this part, Dylan and the science student talk about what they believe a "friend" is and what Dylan's attitude towards journalists is. After hearing what he says, I began to see the superficiality in him. His egotistical nature inhibits his ability to make friends unless they have some material or non-material benefit to him. Interviewers and journalists, those who seek to benefit from him, are treated with dislike; he remarks, "I don't like them." All the while, Dylan is casually strumming his guitar and playing along with Alan Price on the piano. This scene is significant in that it displays what lies behind Dylan's guitar and harmonica.
Another aspect of cinematography that Pennebaker uses to contrast Dylan's music and his character is the sequence of events that appear after his conversation with the interviewer from Time magazine. Right after he finishes implicitly insulting him and explaining his insignificance, the camera cuts to the preparation of his next concert. A few frames later, Dylan walks up on stage with a loud applause and begins his wonderful performance that everyone so dearly respects. I believe this film is so perfect in documenting Bob Dylan because of the way he is displayed both on and off the stage. He belittles the poor interviewer by saying that he is infinitely more important and that he will never understand the things Dylan does or why and how he does them. He selfishly avoids all of the interviewer's questions and turns them against him. Then, the following sequence of Dylan's performance is what Pennebaker intentionally organized to differentiate Dylan as a musician and as an individual.
Pennebaker does a successful job in distinguishing what most people see of Dylan and what few people see of him. The film displays Dylan's encounters with all kinds of people, from annoying interviewers whom he messes around with mercilessly, to his casual talk with his inner friends. It is even revealed by Dylan that most of what he says to interviewers is lies, so he essentially toys with people who seek his answers. What is interesting about this documentary is, however, that the audience of the film chooses his/her own interpretation of Dylan as a character. Many, even I, will come to an agreement that his on-stage performances are record-breaking. His nasal voice delivers his poetic lyrics in a way that reflects the voice of a complaining people and thus adds power to his lyrics, although Dylan himself says that, "I'm not gonna say anything about 'em, I don't write 'em for any reason. There's no message." Much like the language of poetry, Dylan's words are chosen to be interpreted more by the listener than the writer-whatever it might be, there is a beauty to each of his songs. However, on stage is where most people see Dylan. A very few people see what Dylan is like behind the curtains; this film does its job in documenting Dylan wherever he goes.
His character, on the other hand, has many different interpretations, much like his lyrics; I observe him to be self-centered, shallow and lacking in empathy, otherwise a narcissist. In one account, Dylan mercilessly attacks and questions a Time magazine interviewer by saying, "I know more about what you do-and you don't even have to ask me how or why or anything-just by looking, than you'll ever know about me. Ever." This quote describes his inflated, egotistical attitude toward the press and media. As Jeanne Hall puts it, "it culminates in the poet challenging the journalist to take his job and his very existence seriously, knowing that he will someday disappear from the face of the Earth" (Hall). During the beginning of the film, it comes to knowledge that Dylan has not read the Bible, so it can be assumed that he is not religious. Because of this, he stands strongly for his own beliefs and determines how his life runs. A reason that Dylan acts the way he does to the press could be that he perceives them to be annoying journalists who interfere with his passion for playing music. He does not answer honestly to questions because he believes that as long as he can sing and play music, he shows no interest in what the popular media labels him.
Don't Look Back was, in fact, the pioneer of rock documentary and it successfully portrayed Dylan's journey from folk to rock and roll in its finest detail. It is very informative of both Dylan's character and musical talents. The film not only features Bob Dylan as its prime star, but also shines light on his friends like, Bob Neuwirth and Joan Baez, his manager, Albert Grossman, and even Donovan Leitch who was, at the time, Dylan's rival. After watching this film, my views of Dylan has changed completely but somehow my respect for him has increased.