AMERICAN INVASION

‘Don’t Look Back’: D.A. Pennebaker on How a Porn King Saved His Bob Dylan Rock-Doc Masterpiece

To commemorate its 50th anniversary, filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker opens up about the making of his celebrated documentary chronicling Bob Dylan’s 1965 tour of England.

Before D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back premiered at a seedy San Francisco movie house on May 17, 1967, rock docs were a virtually unknown commodity.

The film depicts a pre-electric Bob Dylan, gallivanting around England in the spring of 1965 with a retinue of hangers-on: Joan Baez, Donovan, Bob Neuwirth, and manager Albert Grossman—Dylan’s gruffer version of Colonel Tom Parker—enlivening the backstage and hotel room drama.

Dylan never lacked for drama, even during this period before the infamous tour with the Band in 1966, when a riled-up punter had no problem shouting out that everyone’s favorite ex-folkie was a Judas.

But in the spring of 1965, Dylan was still in could-do-no-wrong mode, even as his music was morphing into a new psychic slipstream that pop and folk singers never ventured into.

Grossman approached a 39-year-old Pennebaker to tag along and document the tour proceedings, with the latter hardly expecting a film—let alone a classic documentary film—rested in the balance. Not that the future cinematic lion was a massive Dylan fan.

“I didn’t know his music at all when we started,” Pennebaker says by phone. “I had heard maybe one song on the radio, but I didn’t know any of the stuff he was doing down in the Village. Albert Grossman came to me and asked me if I wanted to go on the tour, and I assumed he wanted to put on film promotional material to further what Dylan was doing. I thought I’d just be filming music, so I only took one person with me. After about two or three days in London, I got kind of interested in Dylan as a person. The way he talked. I decided not to make just a music film. No one had told me what I could or couldn’t do. So I assumed I could make a film any way I wanted.”

There’s certainly a freewheeling open-mindedness to Pennebaker’s approach, which meshed perfectly with Dylan’s. The filmed press conferences are works of Beckettian theatre—Pennebaker’s unobtrusive camera setups framing tableaus that look like a blend between cinema-verite stylings and a depth of field not out of place in a Hitchcock or Welles feature.

Like Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night, which had come out the year before, a lot of sequences are shot in tight spaces—hotel rooms, corridors, backstage. And then there are the performances themselves. Dylan was entering his apex phase as a singer, one that would last from around this time until the Basement Tapes sessions of 1967.

“I set out to make a film about a guy I thought was a kind of poet,” says Pennebaker. “I think Dylan thought it was something that Albert wanted to do. He never showed any particular interest. He could be amused, certainly, at everything happening around him—like at the hotel, when someone breaks the light bulb.”

“I wanted to capture that sense of amusement, of someone taking everything in. But when he was onstage, my goal was to film his voice. I had never heard words like this,” he continues. “Music at the time in America was lyrics with ‘moon’ and ‘June’ and ‘our love will last.’ But I was filming the words of a poet. I could move around with the camera, since it was just me, for the most part. When I made Monterey a couple years later, there were lots of people with cameras, and I just sent them out and told them to shoot, then put everything together back in New York later. But with Don’t Look Back, most of it was realized in the camera. There wasn’t a lot of editing. I did it like I was making a novel, with it developing in my head, and then as it was shot.”

For a film that was basically one guy hustling around with a camera, and one man singing on stage and acting as an epicenter for various-sized groups of people off of it, Don’t Look Back possesses a remarkable fluidity—Bergman-like tonal shading, even—rather than the herky-jerky mise-en-scène that often comes with the documentary medium.

There are long takes in perfect sync with Dylan’s periodic sentences. A famous scene involves Dylan as the new and future folk bard trading songs/performances with Donovan, who is visibly awed by this towering talent from America. The usual patter about the scene is that Dylan all but cuts out Donovan’s heart when he one-ups him with a rendition of his own “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.”

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“No,” Pennebaker says, “Dylan was a big fan of Donovan. I remember him listening to Donovan records in his room, talking about the guitar parts. Learning. You always had the sense he was deeply in whatever moment he was in. He never talked to me about the film. We had a good relationship. He just seemed to accept that I was there, and something, later, would happen.”

But what almost didn’t happen was Don’t Look Back getting shown at all.

“I got back to New York, finished the film, but no one would distribute it,” Pennebaker recalls. “This wasn’t the kind of thing that played at movie houses back then. So we had to get it into theaters in far-off places. Places like Texas and Idaho. Big cities didn’t want it. The life the film started to have started in random parts of the country. The film was on two big reels, and I was having a hard time getting anyone to look at it.”

“Sometimes I’d play the first reel and then whoever it was would be gone before the second started,” he adds. “I’d show it to anybody who wanted to look at it. One day a guy called me up and said, ‘I understand you have a film that maybe I could see.’ So he comes and looks at it, and afterwards he says, ‘You know, this is exactly what I’m looking for.’ It turns out he had a string of porn theaters all over the West. He said, ‘I’m going to give you my best theater in San Francisco.’ It sounded like a big deal. I was excited. It was only after Monterey that I visited and saw it was kind of this ratty little place but there was this line around it, which is what you like to see if you’re a filmmaker.”

So, one of the very best American music films and one of our finest documentaries of any stripe, rescued by a porn lord. There’s something very appropriately “Desolation Row” about that.