Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 3 / 18 January 2018

Nobel undertakings


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In 1965 Albert Grossman, manager of the curly-haired genius folksinger Bob Dylan, then 23, approached cinema verite documentary filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker with an intriguing proposal. It was to follow his client around on his English tour for three-and-a-half weeks and film what would prove to be Dylan's swan song to acoustic folksinging. Grossman knew that Dylan was eager to break loose from his reputation as a spinner of politically-themed "protest songs." Pennebaker was as eager to break loose from his niche making politically-themed documentaries for PBS.

By tour's end the filmmaker had captured 20 hours, mostly backstage, with Dylan and friends including Joan Baez, Allan Price of the Animals, and British singer-songwriter Donovan, just coming into his own. The film was a hit, giving art-house audiences a tautly edited 96 minutes with articulate, beautiful youth whose careers were approaching warp-speed velocity.

Over half-a-century later, Dylan is still a hot property and just as hard to pin down for fans and press alike. Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Dylan was slow to accept, then hemmed and hawed about whether he would appear in Stockholm to receive the medal, setting the stage for what could be a post-election sermon. As of this writing, Dylan is a no-show for Sweden. The DVD package Bob Dylan: Don't Look Back might be considered that speech. In the commentary track, director Pennebaker describes his high anxiety at the thought of Dylan looking for places to cut the film's often sharp-edged portrait. In the end the artist gave his unqualified approval.

Dylan is seen lashing out at a Time magazine writer, offering a scornful but accurate critique of its condescending view of the emerging 60s youth culture. Dylan also chats with a black British reporter representing the BBC's Africa Service. This provides the cue for Pennebaker's one major flashback: footage of a younger, short-haired Dylan appearing at an early-60s civil rights gathering in an extremely dangerous Mississippi.

Don't Look Back is an absorbing guide to a volatile chapter of Anglo-American pop history. Afer the British Rock Invasion led by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones hit these shores, Dylan's English tour was a well-timed answer. Pennebaker had no desire to turn out a concert film, so acted as a cinematic fly-on-the-wall to show fans how their boy handled himself with both the British public and the British tabloid press.

Apart from one crazy moment where Dylan screams at a drunken hanger-on for tossing a glass out a hotel window, the Dylan we observe is witty and polite to a fault. The film's is enlivened with shots of Dylan pecking away at a manual typewriter, composing a song on a piano and smoking like a chimney. The sight of Dylan lighting up is a visual motif Pennebaker uses in a useful leap back into the hard-to-imagine past.

The film lets us stare at the almost-pretty Minnesota native at the moment he was becoming restless with the trappings of success he had long outgrown. Dylan's world was a virtually all-male preserve, with even the brilliant Baez appearing only on a kind of day pass. Baez has admitted elsewhere that she misunderstood him, a one-time boyfriend. Fifty years later the best one can say about Dylan is that even at 75, he's very much a human work-in-progress.

Also recommended: the Martin Scorsese film No Direction Home: Bob Dylan, which fleshes out the early Dylan years. But there's not a hint of a gay side to his personality except for his genius-level understanding of humanity. He has aged well, and remains a treasure.

Bonus features: commentary with director Pennebaker and tour manager Bob Neuwirth; uncut audio performances; "Subterranean Homesick Blues" cue-card scene; theatrical trailer; Pennebaker filmography; Dylan discography; biographies of cast and crew.

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