Dont Look Back was broadcast on BBC4 as part of a programming segment celebrating Bob Dylan’s 80th birthday. I watched it again after many years and remembered some scenes very clearly but was surprised by others. Very much a film ‘of the moment’, it documents aspects of Bob Dylan’s tour of England in late April – early May 1965 which comprised eight concerts in large venues in seven English cities. Surprisingly perhaps, it didn’t reach Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.
The film is a form of documentary, though not a ‘music concert documentary’ as such. More of the time is spent backstage, in hotel rooms or on the road. There is music, but often only snatches of songs on stage. The ‘best’ song performance may well be a version of ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’ sung by Dylan in a hotel room. There is also a prelude featuring the famous early ‘music video’ with Dylan presenting the scrawled lyrics of ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ on flash cards. This song shot into the UK singles charts during the tour.
Film scholars have categorised the film as an example of ‘Direct Cinema’, the documentary form that emerged in the late 1950s/early 1960s in Canada and the US, seeking to present an observational documentary with as little artifice as possible. Ironically, although it was one of the first such ‘backstage’ music docs, Dont Look Back‘s cinema release was delayed until 1967 in the US (distributors didn’t believe it would attract an audience) and it did not reach the UK until 1970 when the BBFC for some reason gave it an ‘X’ certificate. This meant that the film’s topicality was lost and in 1970 it was in competition with Gimme Shelter, the Rolling Stones documentary by the Maysles Brothers, also like D. A. Pennebaker, the director of Dont Look Back, seen as Direct Cinema pioneers. Nevertheless the large Dylan fanbase and its desire for archival footage of Dylan has meant that Dont Look Back has been well supported over the last fifty years. (It appears that the original title didn’t have the apostrophe in ‘Don’t’.)
‘Direct Cinema’ appeared at roughly the same time as cinéma vérité in France. Both were made possible by developments in film technologies, especially the lightweight 16mm cameras which could be handheld, faster film stock and synchronous sound recording via a linked audio recorder. French pioneer Jean Rouch went out on the streets of Paris for his film Chronique d’un été in 1961 with the sociologist Edgar Morin. North American filmmakers such Robert Drew and his associates and documentary filmmakers at the National Film Board of Canada had already started using the new technologies for a range of documentaries. Drew made the biggest impact with Primary in 1960, following John F. Kennedy on his early Democratic primary campaign in Wisconsin. This was made for TV in the US but seen on film in festivals around the world. Many people use the terms ‘direct cinema’ and ciné vérité interchangeably. One difference is that Rouch as a filmmaker had a direct dialogue with the people he filmed, interacting with them on screen. Direct Cinema projects were strictly observational.
The great strength of Direct Cinema is the chance to document interactions between their subjects and the various people they meet in their jobs. The filmmaker can to some extent prepare for these. For instance, at the beginning of the film Dylan meets reporters at Heathrow airport and the ensuing dialogue between rather po-faced reporters and a waspish Dylan could be predicted, whereas later scenes of young girls outside the Adelphi Hotel in Liverpool seem spontaneous. I think, watching the film now, the main pleasure for me is in the way it documents aspects of British culture which are precisely about 1965. The one failing on this score is that perhaps to preserve the ‘no artifice’ rule, there are no inter-titles explaining where we are (which is usually pretty obvious) and, more importantly, who is shown on screen. Dylan is accompanied throughout by his manager Albert Grossman and fellow American folk-singer Bob Neuwirth (there primarily for ‘moral support’ I guess). For the first few days Joan Baez is present. It was the end period of their relationship and although we hear her singing in the hotel rooms, she doesn’t sing with Dylan on stage. At other points in the film there are glimpses of Marianne Faithful and John Mayall among the many musicians and performers hanging round the hotel rooms.
The two performers who are picked out in the film are Alan Price and Donovan. Price had just left the Animals and had not yet formed the Alan Price Set. He seems a little manic at times and his references will have baffled American audiences. He mimes and sings in the style of Dave Berry whose cover version of ‘Little Things’ was a UK hit in April 1965. Berry appeared on TV always hiding behind a prop or obscuring his face with his hands or with his jacket collar. Price also runs through a George Formby song. Formby was the biggest UK film star and music act (with his ukulele and comic songs) during the 1930s and 1940s. Donovan is featured rather differently. At this point he was a month away from his 19th birthday and had released just one hit single ‘Catch the Wind’. His first album would be released in the next few weeks. In a hotel room he sings for Dylan and the others gathered around. Dylan seems impressed and plays It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’ in response. In the next scene there is a discussion about how Donovan’s tour (with the same promoter as Dylan’s) is going (not well). The UK press was trying to create a narrative around Donovan’s ‘challenge’ to Dylan.
In fact, the UK press was very interested in the Dylan tour. 1965 was a key moment in the development of pop/rock culture and its place in the public imagination. Dylan was briefly a ‘pop star’ and his responses to interviewers’ questions were more intelligent than most of his peers. This was also a period when ‘youth culture’ became more important. All of the performers discussed here – Dylan, Joan Baez, Alan Price, Donovan etc. were under 25 whereas most of the reporters for both the national and regional press were much older. Pennebaker’s film, whether by accident or design, picks out elements of the new music culture. It includes a sequence in which the UK promoter Tito Burns, a major player as a manager and impresario since the 1950s, discusses with Albert Grossman how to increase appearance fees for Dylan. They phone the BBC and Granada trying to drive the fees up. In another scene Pennebaker captures the chaos at Newcastle City Hall when Dylan’s mike cuts out – the problem was discussed at length in the local paper. It’s noticeable that at this point, the major venues like the civic halls were still not properly equipped for rock ‘n roll. In 1965 Dylan was on the cusp of ‘going electric’ and the tour played the Free Trade Hall in Manchester where a year later Dylan would be met with cries of ‘Judas!’ when he introduced the Hawks as his backing band.
I’m sure there is a lot to say about Dylan’s state of mind during this tour and I leave that to the Dylanologists to sort out. Simply as a direct cinema documentary, Dont Look Back is a gem, capturing a moment in UK youth culture.