‘Dont Look Back’
The Criterion Collection
Bob Dylan has said he was only sort of aware he was being filmed. He was in England on his 1965 tour when D.A. Pennebaker, one of the key proponents of the fly-on-the-wall American documentary school known as “direct cinema,” started following him around with a portable camera mounted on his shoulder. At the time consumer-grade film cameras were still relatively new, having been invented in the 1950s. And yet Dylan still assumed the filming was something or other for the record company, tied in to advertising wing of his empire. He didn’t know it would turn into “Dont Look Back,” recently Criterionized, and which was released two years after and which would become not just one of the most famous rock docs but one of the most famous docs period.
A “Dont Look Back” today — one that gets candid, sometimes unflattering footage of a celebrity in his or her early days — would be virtually impossible, what with the army of publicist and label goons helping meticulously shape a pop star’s image. It’s also impossible in an age when all of us, celebrities and plebes, are aware of our image, whether filmed by others or self-disseminated over social media. Back then, with “amateur” filmmaking still in its larval stage, even someone of Dylan’s stature would still have blinders on. Once Pennebaker got access to him, it was, far as nabbing material goes, a lawless Wild West.
And Dylan gave him a lot. Much has been made, including by Dylan himself years later, of his, shall we say, impolite behavior around Time reporter Horace Freeland Judson, whose main passion was as a historian of molecular biology but who, to the 24-year-old musician, was a fuddy duddy embodiment of an establishment he felt needed taken down. Equally uncomfortable, but in a different way, is his tete-a-tete with a younger reporter, Terry Ellis, who would soon co-found Chrysalis Records. Ellis gets too relaxed and chummy around Dylan, who alternates between friendly and sarcastic, firing not-so-subtle putdowns through an evil smile.