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Portrait of the artist as a young man. In spring, 1965, Bob Dylan, 23, a pixyish troubador, spends three weeks in England. Pennebaker's camera follows him from airport to hall, from hotel room to public house, from conversation to concert. Joan Baez and Donovan, among others, are on hand. It's the period when Dylan is shifting from acoustic to electric, a transition that not all fans, including Baez, applaud. From the opening sequence of Dylan holding up words to the soundtrack's "Subterranean Homesick Blues," Dylan is playful and enigmatic. Written by
Contrary to popular belief, the title is not a reference to the lyric "She's an artist, she don't look back" from the song "She Belongs to Me". Pennebaker stated that he hoped Dylan knew he wouldn't do that. See more »
Don't Look Back is one film that will go down in the canon of groundbreaking documentaries. But while there are many interpretations of what D.A. Pennebaker attempted to accomplish (besides an experiment in early cinema-verité and initiating the 'rockumentary' genre), it would be a grave mistake to watch this film and come to any conclusions about Dylan without considering his entire musical body of work. Truly this film is less about Dylan the person and more about his art. Don't Look Back demonstrates how all the factors of Dylan's life came together to form his stylistic influences, and specifically to defend his departure from folk music and his sequential embrace of electric rock.
Dylan's artistic motivations were not so much the social issues of his time, as many believe. It is worth noting here that Martin Scorcese's excellent follow-up documentary No Direction Home demonstrates this clearly: in one British press conference, a reporter asks Dylan if he'll be attending some widely publicized protest later in the week. Dylan replies coyly, "I think I'll be busy that day." Rather, his musical influences, his poetic abilities and the nature of folk music were a natural musical direction for Dylan to explore. But Dylan saw himself as more than just a musician he much preferred to be considered an artist. In Don't Look Back, Dylan even lashes out at one reporter (albeit unfairly) for branding him a folk musician. He also claims not to have the answers to social problems that people desperately wanted him to provide: he repeatedly goes into tirades throughout the film about there being "no truth" and that he is merely "painting portraits" of life.
Dylan's relationship with Joan Baez is another indication of the aforementioned. She's ever disapproving of his disregard for the issues she believes are important. In future interviews, Baez admitted that she couldn't get Dylan to see the value of correcting the social ills which Dylan arguably could have done, considering the almost divine influence he had over the masses, but Dylan merely ignores her. He even allows her to be ridiculed by his band mates without coming to her defense. It might be warranted as cruel on Dylan's part, but the truth was that he cared about other things more: his art.
These clips help Pennebaker demonstrate why Dylan abandoned folk music. He became weary of the negative press during his British tour and is impressed with alternate forms of music he hears along the way. His band mates Michael Bloomfield and Al Kooper opened Dylan's eyes and ears to the beauty and intricateness of electric rock. Many other clips demonstrate this throughout the film: Dylan's complete awe with the electric guitars in the window of an instrument shop; the piano improv from Alan Price (a former member of The Animals), etc. One telling scene is the final clip of Dylan leaving the tour in a limo while Albert Grossman reads aloud a recent article accusing Dylan of being an anarchist for presenting problems in society but not providing solutions. Dylan's parting words trail into the credits as he stares out the window: "It can't be good to be an anarchist " If there was ever one defining moment when Dylan made the decision to allow his art to evolve, this may be it.
One might also argue that Dylan's obvious apprehension to Donovan was due to a mix of jealousy and disgust, ultimately because Donovan was really just another Dylan. Had Dylan truly cared about the message rather than the medium, he'd be content with Donovan's solidarity to help get that message to the people. Instead, Dylan saw Donovan as an artistic competitor and hated that many compared the two. Many Brits at the time even gave Donovan more credit as a guitarist, a title that was destroyed after Dylan turned to electric rock and developed his style as an improv guitarist. He even takes a shot at Donovan on stage during a song ("I looked in the closet/there was Donovan"). It was likely a reference to Donovan's attempt to emulate Dylan's musical style, though it may even be a jab at Donovan's masculinity or lack thereof.
One final note: Dylan may claim in the film that he doesn't care about what the media thinks of his work, but like most historical artists, he undeniably did. He ribs into reporters (both justly and otherwise) and tries to laugh off his rudeness to others in an attempt to make up for it. Had he been passionate about fixing the world, it should not have mattered to him what others thought. In the end Dylan never cared much for the issues, but about the music.
And as with any artist, his work would evolve for the better or for the worse. Watch No Direction Home to see a wonderful clip of Dylan and his band showing up at the Annual Folk Festival and shocking the crowd with a frenzied version of "I Ain't Gonna Work on Maggie's Farm No More." There's no better display of Dylan's total disregard to folk music, insulting the entire genre and its fans by declaring his estrangement to the 'music of the people.'
When the entire tour experience was over, Dylan left Britain with a new perspective on his style and much to the chagrin of his early fans, he didn't look back.
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