Thursday, February 12, 2009

Don't Look Back

D.A. Pennebaker's Don't Look Back would have earned its place in the annals of rock cinema history regardless of its subject. After all, it was the first serious documentary of a rock artist ever produced; previous documents of rockers were either isolated interviews or, chiefly in the case of the Beatles, fictionalized films designed to shift units. That Pennebaker decided to break ground by documenting Bob Dylan is both obvious and bold: no figure in rock was, is, or ever will be as mysterious, which only makes the desire to study him natural. The result is one of the first example of cinema verité, even though it's clearly edited according to both Pennebaker's and Dylan's manager Albert Grossman's tastes.

The film opens with that landmark clip of a deadpan Dylan standing in the street as "Subterranean Homesick Blues" plays, flipping cue cards of the lyrics. One of the earliest examples of a music video, it's arguably the most famous scene of the whole movie, ironic considering it has nothing to do with the actual documentary. We then follow Dylan as he tours England on the back of Bringing It All Back Home, that cornerstone in Dylan's career in which he began to move away from the protest folk that brought him fame and into the surrealist folk blues rock that would truly define his image.

As he hops from hotel to hotel, venue to venue, a portrait of Bob Dylan slowly forms, though often the pieces are contradictory. The first half, certainly the most entertaining, shows him with Joan Baez. Though their relationship will disintegrate over the course of the film, in these early moments they offer up the most heartwarming moments when they play around with old Hank Williams tunes and Dylan's own "Love Is Just a Four-Letter Word." At some point, though, she's gone without explanation and their romance is over.

Around the time she leaves, Dylan shifts from his shy, laid-back self into an arrogant prat. With Joan Bob had someone "worthy" of his company; Joan at least never makes it explicit, but it's clear that both are riding high on celebrity, a fame that allows them to tour the world and get paid large sums of money and appear in magazines without selling out. We're not marketing tools, man, we're spreading the word! Watching the film I was reminded of modern celebrities who ride in private jets to preach messages of energy conservation. Though Baez is every bit as guilty of this as Bob, she tempered this side of him because she too was a god.

Maybe I'm building Dylan's egomania up too much; he was just 24 years old at the time, a kid who had been a Woody Guthrie-covering nobody 3 years prior and was now the "voice of a generation." It's a lot of pressure to put on someone, and it caused him to rebel, not against the Establishment but the counterculture itself. That this rebellion manifested itself in drunken arguments (Dylan angrily demanding to know who threw a glass "into the street" is just pathetic) and general snottiness is only natural considering his age, and it also serves perfectly to point towards his turn to rock 'n roll, the bastion of the rowdy youth, for escape.

Roger Ebert attacked Dylan for his treatment of journalists, but I find this to be the most interesting aspect of Dylan. The mainstream press didn't care about the folk movement to begin with, and the really didn't understand that Dylan was leaving that scene behind. Nevertheless, they speak to him as the protest singer, when Dylan tries to impress his new direction as a vague surrealist. The Beatles faced their share of harsh and condescending journalists, but they had a personal wit Dylan never had, at least in conversation. Ergo, he responded to their condescension in kind, sneering at their questions and insulting their vapid, thoughtless questions. I will side with Ebert, however, in the case of the student Dylan shames. I can understand that by this time Dylan was just sick of all the questions, but the way he tears apart this kind who isn't even a fledgling journalist, just a fan, while his groupies and cronies loon on and giggle is the kind of stuff that turns people off their heroes.

Just when Dylan can't be any more unlikable, he takes to the stage for the last performances of the film. The earlier shows lacked all the heart and conviction that Bob and Joan showed in their hotel jams, but at last Dylan seems to get comfortable in his own skin and plays around with the audience a bit. In these final moments we get our first glimpse of the true Dylan: the kid forced into superstardom who wants to josh around more than lead. Sure, he's not packing arenas like the Beatles, but more people looked to Bob as a revolutionary than the Fab Four. He leaves the stage genuinely pleased, finally confident enough to move forward. Poor bastard didn't realize what a battle he had ahead.

In the end, Dylan crafts a self-image too contradictory to provide a lot of insight, so, in a sense, Pennebaker failed with this documentary. It also hurts the verité claim that manager Grossman had a big hand in the final cut of the film, but the end result is surprisingly unflattering. I think it served both the director and the manager: Pennebaker got the image of the emperor's new clothes, an immature, arrogant false prophet of folk who placed himself on a much bigger pedestal than even his fans, while Grossman helped cultivate the image of a hellraiser for Dylan's burgeoning rock tone.

In a strange way, Don't Look Back, for all its revealing pieces of Dylan's childishness, does more for his deification than you could ever hope. With the exception of that poor student, the journalists on the receiving end of Dylan's vicious indifference completely deserve it and, immature as they may be, his blunt attacks are refreshing in the face of the Beatles' light-hearted give and take with the press. It's a frank yet fundamentally untrue document, deceptively revealing with its prying camera, and a must-see for Dylan fans and those who like rockumentaries even if it glosses over much too much.

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