Love him or loathe him, the inspiration and influence of songwriter Bob Dylan is universal. Peeling back the curtain on a pioneering artist, director D.A. Pennebaker provides an incredible look at an artist about to make the great leap toward a whole other style of music-making. Don’t Look Back captures Dylan’s 1965 tour of England, and the various encounters with journalists, artists and nobodies as they look to get a slice of a man on the verge of becoming a folk music legend. His final tour as an acoustic performer, Pennebaker and Dylan’s collaboration throws audiences a document that has history-making moments pouring out of every scene.
Pop stardom is a horrifying sight to behold, the tabloid stories that swirl around the private lives of artists appeal to ghouls and nosey sorts. Don’t Look Back captures that well, the screaming and adoring fans held back by a line of journalists, all looking to capture that golden nugget of wisdom that they believe Dylan possesses. Turning the heads of those that wish to understand his art and the message behind it, Pennebakers documentary thrives when Dylan challenges the concepts and ideas that are stereotypically thrown at him. His stance as the genius of folk music writing is questioned not by journalists, but by himself.
Key to all of this, though, is Dylan’s laidback approach. Stress doesn’t often encroach on the film; a good time is seemingly had by all. A presence of cameramen and crew make for insightful stuff, but a niggling worry that this larger-than-life appearance is just that. Work that has been potentially played up for the cameras. Pennebaker manages to direct with such confidence and natural, flowing ability, that his seamless transitions from gig to gig are almost too good to be true. Certainly not impeding on the quality of discourse or performance from Dylan, Donovan and Joan Baez, but there are slight doubts that ever so cautiously linger in one or two scenes. Aside from those though, the genuine article of a creative movement about to explode is documented with expert precision.
Pennebaker here offers a masterful composure of touring life. How a musician adapts to new surroundings, audiences, journalists and a non-stop press campaign like no other. Don’t Look Back sees its subject do just that. Dylan barrels toward the future, scenes of silent rumination are slotted throughout the eight-venue tour of England. The times they are a changin’ indeed, Dylan knows it, and as the film continues, his positive mentality and attitude diminishes in the face of consistently bland questioning, monotonously identical but brilliant performances, and the spark of an artist realising he can do something greater than his already acclaimed works. Typically, and vitally, though, Dylan comes across as a thoughtful beast of the industry, someone with wit and intelligence that extends far beyond his lyrics. Don’t Look Back is indeed worth looking back on, a time capsule of a monumental moment in music history.