In April 1965, when Bob Dylan arrived for a two-week tour of Britain, director D.A. Pennebaker followed his entourage around, filming him in concert, in hotel rooms, in cars and trains: always surrounded by friends and hangers-on, and only alone when isolated on stage – performing.
Some of the dialogue is distorted and inaudible, and the low lighting makes some shots impenetrably murky.
But it’s a small price to pay for a movie that contains so many insights into the backstage manoeuvring that surrounds an artist on tour: dealing with the press, financial hustling, and the after-the-show escapes.
Don’t Look Back is also an invaluable record of Dylan at a time when he was going through important changes.
Dylan was greeted in Britain as a serious youth leader – the man whose ideas made people listen, instead of scream. But while newspapers were earnestly spreading the word of the ‘poet’, Dylan was already hooked on the idea of becoming a rock & roll star.
Dylan and his entourage shown travelling around in an impenetrable clique including Albert Grossman (resembling a turned-on bank manager), Bob Neuwirth (witty and nervous and seeming to reinforce Dylan’s obliqueness) and Joan Baez there as a reminder of Dylan’s past personality when they were King and Queen of Folk.
Dylan’s verbal games with the press appear tortuous and sometimes cruel, but as soon as he does let his guard down he is asked to explain, define or justify himself to people who cannot understand him. “God, I’m glad I’m not me!” exclaims Dylan after reading one newspaper account of himself.
But he is playing a double game. While he despises the reporters for converting his ideas and complex images into cliches, he is also obsessed with being written up and treated as a celebrity.
And when Dylan is confronted by a reporter from Time, he unleashes his scorn and anger, declaring that, “truth is a collage” . . . but there’s still no way he can make the man understand his perceptions.
Don’t Look Back also makes clear that the games Dylan played with reporters, with his fans, with his image, were not empty tricks. They were extensions of ideas Dylan was working on in his songs.
And the sequences of Dylan performing underline what a difficult, unrepeatable trip it was from The Times They Are A-Changin’ to It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).