In early 1965, Bob Dylan was in a key point in his creative career. He was transitioning between the acoustic folk music he had become famous for and the rock and roll that would turn that fame on its head.
It was around this time he toured the U.K. and brought now-famed rock filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker along with him to chronicle it. The footage was kept, edited and released as Don’t Look Back in 1967 a year after his motorcycle crash that incapacitated Dylan and while the singer recorded The Basement Tapes with The Band.
During this tour, Dylan was all at once charming, confrontational, bratty and charismatic. The film captures him just before his transformation into the big-haired electric image he’s now famous for. That creative tension is clear in his interactions with not only his manager, entourage and friend, Joan Baez, but also random individuals like a science student who debates with Dylan on the true nature of friendship, or the Time magazine reporter who cops a verbal beating regarding Dylan’s sincerity as a singer.
Dylan’s deep mythological pool is filled further with various moments and quotes that remain visually striking. The film opens with the iconic “Subterranean Homesick Blues” video, and closes with Dylan’s manager informing him that he’s been called an anarchist while driving home from a gig; Dylan’s throwaway classic response: “Give the anarchist a cigarette.”
Above all else, Dylan comes across as someone new and unfamiliar to fame and notoriety, but willing to accept it as part of his image. So many modern-day musicians dive headfirst into fame after stumbling across it and expect to be treated as such for the rest of their career. There are countless examples from “American Idol” and “The Voice” to prove this.
The most interesting element of “Don’t Look Back” is that Dylan is on the knife’s edge of buying into rock-stardom but he still sings heavy, meaningful folk songs, at this point visibly bored by this facet of his image. The audience can be repulsed by the rock star behavior, but drawn in by the poetic lyrics and charismatic performances.
In a way, “Don’t Look Back” thematically predated all other rock documentaries. Dylan is (barely) not shown as self-important as The Band in “The Last Waltz” (1978), and he’s not as self-defecating as James Murphy in” Shut Up and Play The Hits” (2010).
The film is notable for being a pioneer in the cinema verite approach to music documentaries; a perspective that positions the audience as a fly on the wall. The closest cinematic and artistic comparison may be Radiohead’s “Meeting People is Easy” (1998), presenting the subject as aware of their being in a film, and the tensions of being filmed, while wrestling with the nature of super-stardom. Moreover, it shows a personality too big for the 1960’s, making the film timeless and endlessly interesting to this day.