Bob Dylan is a name practically synonymous with American music. He is also deeply connected to the counter-culture movement of the 60s and the “protest songs” which defined the era. But in Pennebaker’s film Dont Look Now (properly spelled without the apostrophe!), we get the impression that Bob Dylan neither cares about his reputation or even his connection to the deeper culture around him. Truth be known, it seems like he just wants to wail on his guitar and play the harmonica. In fact, it is only shortly after the events depicted in this film occurred that Dylan would sent the music world into a frenzy by moving away from pure acoustic music and going electric. At one point in the film Dylan talks to a young girl about electric music: “It’s just not you and I don’t like it,” she says. “But you like me?” he retorts. “Well of course!”
Its moments like these which define this movie. The fly-on-the-wall approach of the film puts us in the middle of Bob Dylan’s 1965 British tour as we witness him getting hounded by reporters, fans, “science students,” and other musicians. Sometimes it seems the whole world is at odds with Bob, and that he is simply surrounded by morons. As those around him babble and ask ridiculous questions Bob retorts, turns their words on them, questions their logic, and pokes holes in their train of thought. Sometimes he comes across as mean (sometimes he is mean), but for the most part we get it: he just wants people to stop treating him like a sort of musical messiah. In one scene Dylan debate with a young “science student” regarding the meaning of friendship: “Is friendship someone who looks like you? Thinks like you? Talks like you?” Dylan asks. The student replies yes. Dylan shakes his head, “Maybe you should try listening instead of asking so many questions,” he responds.
Aside from the wonderful attributes of the “direct cinema” documentary form, Dont Look Now features incredible live footage of Dylan (and Joan Baez!) performing both in front of audiences and in hotel rooms. Never mind the now famous scene set to the song “Subterranean Homesick Blues” which features Dylan holding cards with the lyrics written on them. That scene, by the way, by all accounts practically invented what would later become the music video. But the daringly photographed scenes set to music, which include Bob singing in concert to hushed audiences hanging off of every word, are not the only area in which this film broke new ground. Rarely before had a subject been photographed this intimately and closely. At times we hear and see things we feel that we ought not to hear.
Dont Look Back is a wonderfully up-close and revealing document film. The character Bob puts on, that of the annoyed twenty-something who just wants to play music, is a wonderful one to play against press, screaming fans, and anyone who would dare insinuate he exists for no reason beyond their pleasure and satisfaction. At times we think Bob is a madman, he screams at people over an incident involving a glass being thrown in the street, and then we realize his true intention: “I just don’t want anyone to get hurt,” he explains after the incident has calmed down. Bob wanted to play electric music, he wanted to write songs, and he wanted to entertain people; he cracks jokes, goofs around, and tries not to take himself too seriously.
There’s a reason this is typically regarded as one of the greatest documentaries. It is enthralling, enlightening, and entertaining. The music is grand, the images powerful, and the man at the center of it seems to hate the spotlight. In those moments when he is the center he is most reserved, but in private his personality comes out and he owns the room.