Dont Look Back Film Review
I've posted a bit of poetry and some prose on here, don't really know if this is the right place. It's a film review of the Bob Dylan "rockumentary" Dont Look Back.
Dont Look Back (sic) - Film Review - English Media Coursework
“Johnny’s in the basement mixing up the medicine, I’m on the pavement thinking about the government, a man in a trench coat, bad job, laid off , says he’s got a bad cough, wants to get it paid off….” The opening lines to Dont Look Back, and, as it happens the opening lines to the Bob Dylan album, Bringing It All Back Home. A revolutionary album. A revolutionary film.
A New York alleyway. 1965. On the screen stand Bob Dylan, the legendary musician, poet, artist, but what is he doing? He is holding up placards, with words written on them that vaguely follow the song being played over the top of the footage, Subterranean Homesick Blues. The first music video? Maybe not. The first music video that we all remember? Yes. This opening scene signifies a roller coaster ride, one that you may not understand. One that may cause you to reel in horror at the attitude of one 24 year old folk singer. But one that will most defiantly make you want to re-watch and re-indulge in time and time again.
After the short 2 and a half minute song that opens the film, director D.A Pennebaker cuts to Dylan, in his dressing room, humming along to one of his songs, accompanying himself on his acoustic guitar, his eyes conveying deep concentration. This single shot embodies what Pennebaker was aiming for when he made this film. A look at the man behind the music. Not a concert film. Not a documentary. A voyeuristic look into one man and his life. A life that happens to involve playing songs for an audience of worshipping fans.
The film depicts England in the mid sixties, in the grip of Dylan-mania. An early scene involves Dylan being escorted from his plane and through a Heathrow terminal, surrounded by screaming fans, by old traditional ‘Bobbies’. A wonderful contrast. An icon of what was at the time new, exciting, disturbing, unknown being led by what was and still is old fashioned, mundane and overly British.
An important theme of the film is change. As I said, this film is more than a concert film. It is a lot deeper than that. It depicts not only the change in Dylan and his music, it depicts a change in the music scene and youth culture in general, the death of the folk music scene, that Dylan was so heavily immersed in during the early sixties. One scene that represents this oh so well, is a scene in which Dylan is interviewed by a reporter from the African service of the BBC, in which the reporter asks Dylan to tell him “How it all began.”. Pennebaker then throws in another lightning cut, to a young Dylan, clad in a humble work shirt, at a Mississippi Civil Rights Rally in 1963. Accompanied by topical singer Pete Seeger, Dylan plays the song, “Only A Pawn In Their Game”. A protest song. One typical of the types of, as Dylan put it, “finger pointing songs”, that he was trying to move away from on the tour of England depicted in Dont Look Back.
And then, after this look into Dylan’s past, another lightning cut. We are back in 1965, and Dylan, now dressed in a black leather jacket and Beatle-esque roll neck jumper, singing “The Times They Are-A Changing”, another protest song. But this time, Dylan is not putting emphasis into his words, he, like the rest of the youth world at the time, is bored. Bored with writing mundane songs, designed to appeal to people who long for things that cannot be had.
The film was filmed during a time in which Dylan was on the cusp of something new. He was only three or four months away from playing electric at the Newport Folk Festival, a move that divided his fans. One half, the folk purists, the ones who wanted Dylan to keep on writing “Finger Pointing songs”, and the other half, the ones who embraced his new rock ‘n’ roll style. Pennebaker captured this perfectly, in a style completely his own. Never narrating. Never providing any background to Dylan or his music. Never introducing the “characters” such as Donovan, Alan Price, Joan Baez and other Sixties icons. Just documenting. Filming. And doing it in such a manner, you could not care less that you know nothing about the things and people you are seeing on your screen.
Around a half hour into the film, among scenes of Dylan being perused by fans and talking to Alan Price and Eric Burdon from The Animals, there is calm. A scene. A moving scene. A scene that embodies the voyeuristic nature of Dont Look Back. A scene that shows Dylan, sitting at his typewriter, pounding away at the keys, not unlike Jack Kerouac, writing On The Road, with his continuous scroll of paper, with Joan Baez, Dylan’s lover and fellow folk singer, sitting, strumming and singing softly It is, in my opinion, DA Pennebaker’s finest piece of film. Capturing Dylan, in a haze of complete and utter concentration, obviously wanting to get whatever he was writing on his typewriter perfect. This was not Dylan the folk singer. Not Dylan the rock star. Not Dylan the poet. But Dylan the person, the human being, just lounging around, writing with his lover by his side serenading him. In the scene, Pennebaker plunged us into a pool of total peace, lifting us out of the hustle and bustle of being on tour with a superstar, and dropping us into a group of friends hanging out. A significant change of mood and atmosphere, done perfectly by Pennebaker.
And just like that. We are lifted out of the pool. And thrown back into the madness and confusion that is Dylan’s 1965 Tour of England. We are greeted by the headline “Dylan Digs Donovan”. Ironic considering that in an earlier seen Dylan had joked about Donovan, making fun of him and his music. This scene is Pennebaker showing us Dylan. Warts ‘n’ all. In some ways humanizing him, proving once again that he is a real person, one who is not perfect, one who will take the Mickey and play jokes on you.
Another good example of these “Warts ‘n’ all” scenes, is one in which Dylan jousts verbally with a science student about the idea of friends. While at first it seems as if Dylan is trying to irritate the student. Yet, if one was to analyze the scene, it shows Dylan’s skill with words, all he is doing is taking what the student is saying, and turning it on it’s head, using them in a manner that shows Dylan to be very intelligent.
After this scene, we see Dylan, in conversation with a very proper, British woman, who invites him and his entourage to stay in her mansion house. It was at this point in the film at though appeared in my head. “My god, this film has more weird and wonderful characters than Alice in Wonderland.” That was exactly my thoughts by this point. Pennebaker had introduced us to a cast of wonderful yet fully real characters; Dylan: The dark yet humble Joker, Baez: The figure of what has passed and Pennebaker himself: The silent narrator. It was here, I knew that Pennebaker had created a masterpiece.
One thing interesting about how Pennebaker directed the film, was the fact that when Dylan is shown playing his songs, they are always used in some sort of context relevant to the scene or the film. For example, during once scene, Pennebaker cuts from Dylan, who is playing the song “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright”, A retrospective love song, to footage shot from a train window, showing England speeding by at a pace fitting the tempo of the song. This could be interpreted as symbolising Dylan’s changing as a musician, changing style, changing genre, changing the group of people he hangs around with.
Soon, we reach a scene that not only once again reveals the “human” side of Dylan, it also brings back another recurring theme. Donovan. The British folksinger whom Dylan jokes about throughout the film finally appears, during a get together in a London hotel. It is here that Donovan plays his song “To Sing For You” during which Dylan proclaims sarcastically “That’s pretty GOOD man!”. Dylan then goes on to play his song “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”, widely considered to be one of his finest compositions. This is the epitome of all the “Warts ‘n’ All” scenes. Revealing, yet wildly entertaining.
Soon we have reached the final two concerts of Dylan’s tour, two nights, back to back, the Royal Albert Hall. But before this, we see what is arguably the most famous scenes from the film. Dylan, arguing with TIME Magazine correspondent Horace Freeland Judson, about how the media pigeon hole categorize and write about things they have no idea about. Dylan also describes how TIME magazine shows an inaccurate picture of the world, and how if TIME magazine did show a true picture, it would be a collage, featuring “A Tramp vomiting man, into the sewer and next door to that picture, Mr Rockefeller or Mr C.W Jones, going to work on the subway.
The film ends, with the longest sequence of music seen throughout the film. Dylan, playing “It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding” A song that totally embodies the ‘new’ Dylan, followed by a short scene featuring Dylan, in a taxi looking out at London, thinking about the tour, and talking about being labelled an Anarchist by the Media and giving out the memorable quote “Give The Anarchist A Cigarette”.
All in all Dont Look back is a masterful piece of film, documenting not only a change in Bob Dylan and his music and style. But the ever changing sixties and the changing pace of filmmaking, all done in DA Pennebaker’s individual style.