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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
Do you know that feeling when a song captures you completely? One minute there's all these thoughts running around in your head and the next minute someone switches the radio on and it's kinda like it screams, STOP!
You can feel it. You let your whole being be absorbed by it. You're on a high. Then you catch your breath . . .
Bob Dylan, as depicted in Don't Look Back, is the kind of megastar that can grip you emotionally and intellectually. While their neighbours joined screaming mobs that bayed at the Beatles, Bob Dylan fans listen in rapt silence, taking in every word.
"How many times must the cannon balls fly - Before they're forever banned? The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind, The answer is blowin' in the wind."
He inhabits a hallowed quality. Anti-war protesters, educated and disenchanted youth, all see him as their hero. An emblem of hope. Dylan inspired people. Made them feel they could make a difference. Somehow make it a better world.
It was also the Swinging Sixties. Music videos hadn't been invented. In cinema, TV commercials director Richard Lester had kicked off a style of pop musical with the Beatles in A Hard Day's Night (1964). Andy Warhol projected live footage of a band to heighten a live performance (The Velvet Underground and Nico, 1966). Whereas for the opening scene of D.A. Pennebaker's film, Don't Look Back, a deadpan Dylan simply discards one large white card after another. They contain random words from the overlaid soundtrack song, Subterranean Homesick Blues.
That scene has been copied and parodied. Like the kiss-on-the-beach-at-the-edge-of-the-waves in From Here To Eternity, far more people know of and recognise the scene than have ever seen the film. Words are deliberately misspelt. Alan Ginsberg haunts the background as if he's wandered in from another film lot. The scene became one of the first 'music videos'. And the film became one of the early examples of fly-on-the-wall cinema.
Don't Look Back is one of the important movies of the decade for its development of cinema verité, a documentary style with many offshoots but at that point made possible with the new lightweight cameras and sound recorders. These were less intrusive and meant that events could be recorded in a way less staged, the filmmakers having opportunity to follow subjects down corridors or seemingly eavesdrop on conversations.
Don't Look Back follows Bob Dylan through his most iconic phase, dark glasses and leather jacket, on his 1965 UK tour at the height of his fame. (He is about to dispense with a rustic folksy style and upset fans by embracing rock and roll and electric guitars.) It is the Bob Dylan so cryptically emulated by Cate Blanchett in I'm Not There. This is the legend. And the man who became a legend in his own lifetime, constantly reinventing his poetry. He would one day be awarded a special Pulitzer Prize for his "profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power." Not to mention an honorary degree from the prestigious St Andrews University in Scotland.
The follow-the-tour format is a little like In Bed With Madonna. But the immediacy of the film foreshadow movies like Control. Stark black and white photography and a personality that dominates the screen without even trying. Joan Baez (who was near the end of an affair with Dylan) is singing in a hotel room. Dylan looks up with rapt attention (and obvious admiration) for the shy young folk singer Donovan. And clips from his sell-out Albert Hall concert. Throughout and in sharp contrast to almost everyone else captured in all their bygone sixties primness Dylan still looks cool and self-assured in his own skin even by 21st century standards. Somehow his image hasn't aged.
There was something almost mystical about Dylan at the time. Press conferences in the film (that would also be re-staged later in I'm Not There) show journalists nonplussed by the youngsters response. News stories marvel at how thousands of well-behaved youngsters are packing concert halls in essence to listen to several hours of one man's poetry. His lyrics, ranging from poignant stories to stream-of-consciousness collections, were emotionally resonant with metaphors and phrases that could be appropriated to every person's private suffering, every cry of pain behind anti-establishment (and particularly anti-war) sentiments. Dylan never claimed to be any other than a poet and a guitarist. "I got nothing to say about these things I write I just write them . . . I don't write them for any reason. There's no message." His almost angry 1960s disclaimer in the film will still be uttered almost 40 years later at great length in his Chronicles biography. No-one wanted to believe he was only interested in writing poetry. But his openness and honesty in facing down critics is disarming.
For non-music fans and people not specifically interested in the period, the film has slightly less to offer. Poor definition on many hand-held shots gives a lack of visual elegance. The lack of any voice-over means the viewer has to work out many details themselves. And, while it is a remarkable and very vibrant portrait of an esteemed artists at one of the most famous and influential periods of his career, there are maybe too few songs for fans.
Dylan would go on to win Grammy, Golden Globe and Academy Awards and receive several Nobel Prize nominations for literature. The film stops long before he had achieved such mainstream critical acclaim. It never features him singing the credits song, Subterranean Homesick Blues, or the song from which the title is taken. Ironically, it looks back to a period he himself had abandoned by the time the film was released.
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