Doc of the Day: Dont Look Back Review - Dan Schindel

Doc of the Day: Dont Look Back

Posted in Days of Docs by - May 24, 2012

Happy birthday, Bob Dylan! I’ll never meet you, but here’s my present: a review of a movie you were in forty-five years ago!

Dir. D.A. Pennebaker, 1967, 96 min

Dont Look Back is something of an inscrutable film, which is appropriate, since it’s centered around an infamously inscrutable man. From the opening scene, in which Bob Dylan unveils misspelled title cards with the lyrics to the song playing on the soundtrack written on them, you get the feeling that he and director D.A. Pennebaker are just shamelessly screwing around with you. Watching this doc feels like being the only sober member of a group of stoners. That’s not a bad thing.

The movie follows Dylan during his 1965 tour in England. This was during his experimental phase, the period where Cate Blanchett played him in I’m Not There (Hey, that’s my frame of reference for all things Dylan. I’ve mentioned how I don’t know anything about music only a hundred times). With Joan Baez, Bob Neuwirth, and his entourage in tow, he sings, hangs out, and has combative run-ins with fans and reporters. There’s no plot to speak of, just a lot of folk music and Dylan philosophizing.

The cinema verite pioneer that he is, Pennebaker is nothing but a remote observer to the events. Through his lens, the entire film looks like a runner’s-view music video. Though I suppose that it’s more likely that music videos look like this (I don’t know anything about music videos, either). The black and white photography is ugly in a gorgeous sort of way, extremely gritty and low-budget, but with brilliant contrasts and framing.

The film sounds as good as it looks. As someone musically disinclined, all I know is that Dylan’s music makes me feel good, and there’s plenty of it here. One journalist in the doc says that he doesn’t sing “songs” as much as he does “sermons,” and that feels more apt than anything I can come up with. What exactly it is that he’s preaching is nebulous, as Dylan is either shifting what he believes on the fly or just being purposefully obtuse. Either option seems entirely possible.

Everything about Dont Look Back, starting with the title, is terse and clipped. It doesn’t have time to slow down for you, and dares you to keep up as it frolics through the city streets in a ecstatic haze. The film is a delirious good time, and it’s an enduring tribute to Bob Dylan’s unique genius.

This post was written by
Dan Schindel is a writer and editor. He lives and works in Los Angeles.
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