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Book Review: Don’t Look Back – A Film and Book by D.A. Pennebaker

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One hates to look back, especially given the title of this book and the DVD that accompanies it (or really, the other way around), Don't Look Back, filmed and written by D.A. Pennebaker.

Don't Look Back is a documentary of Bob Dylan's UK tour of 1965 and opens with the famous black-and-white video of Dylan performing "Subterranean Homesick Blues". In the background there is, in case you didn’t know – and I say this because I was surprised that a good friend who knows a lot about Dylan did not know – Allen Ginsberg and Bob Neuwirth. Ginsberg is dressed sort of like a rabbi here, and Neuwirth is carrying a walking stick that keeps popping in and out of the front or left side of the frame. It’s not a big deal, but it's an interesting bit of trivia if you’ve seen the video and wondered who it is in the background talking.

The book, which is the script for Don’t Look Back, is useful, especially for those who have actually seen the film (and I recommend you do, otherwise the book really cannot mean as much as it would – it lacks a certain potential), for it gives us the detail that we may be missing such as names. For instance Alan Price of the Animals who makes an appearance is one name we miss in the documentary; the book identifies him and therefore adds some value to the viewing. Then there is the famous (or infamous) interview with a "science student" who comes as a "sort of" journalist to interview Dylan.

Dylan, known for not particularly liking interviews and often being cantankerous or conversely sometimes overly shy, in this case can afford to be whoever he wants to be because he alone with the science student/journalist. It's an interesting exchange between Dylan and the student and a fast one. Dylan keeps egging the student/journalist on, picking on the young man in some way – questioning his every question such that we wonder who is questioning whom.

For example, Dylan says, "Just give me a reason why I should want to know you.”

To which the science student replies, “Um… I might be worth knowing."

Dylan responds, "Why?"

This may have been a mistake on Dylan's part for this shy and retiring science student who seemed unable to hold his own went on to found Chrysalis Records (I may be wrong about the label, but I'm pretty sure that was it.) If I’m wrong about this label and you know it was a different one, correction please. Either way, the student did become someone “worth knowing.”

No, Pennebaker's script will not have this sort of information in it, but with a backward glance, if you know enough about what became of the "science student" in the later years, you see what a mistake Dylan made by blowing off the young man in this case and more, what a mistake the science student also made by rejecting Dylan’s harmonica offer, a mistake that has any fan or Dylanologist today saying, “Oww….” But then, how could he have known at the time?

What we see through the screenplay of Don't Look Back are the things that perhaps changed the lives of those on the scene at the time, and that is what makes Pennebaker so incredibly talented.

D.A. Pennebaker has a remarkable ability to make himself invisible as a filmmaker, thereby putting his subjects fully at ease and able to truly be themselves in front of camera as if they have forgotten it is there. What Pennebaker does is capture the "cinema verite" – what the tour was really like. This is the information that is invaluable and that would be lost to history, and this is why the book is valuable as an adjunct to the film.

Buy the DVD Don't Look Back; buy this book at the same time and see and read together. You won't miss a thing, and yes, it is with a backward glance, but we do it without regret.

Thanks for listening.

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About Sadi Ranson-Polizzotti

  • Steve

    Hey, Sadi,
    Have you heard about the movie coming out that supposedly has different actors playing Dylan??…can’t recall where I heard about it, but it sounded like it was coming out this year.

    Anyway, haven’t seen you at the last List Of… article since before Christmas!! Hope you had a great one. Looking forward to your next List!

  • sadi ranson-polizzotti

    Steve, hi!

    I’m sorry, i JUST saw this comment (surfing the web of all things and i found it, duh).

    I did hear about the film with different actors playing Dylan. I’m not sure what to make of it. It may be good. I don’t know. I suppose we have to see it before really judging it in any way or knowing – it’s hard.

    The “Edie” film is easier in some ways because Dylan himself has spoken out against it and so for this reason, then one feels okay, maybe this isn’t such a great idea. Like book publishing, they are opening themselves up to liability unless they can really prove what they are saying in the film or unless they pitch it as “Fiction.”

    As with books, you need to be clear about characters and categories. IF they made a film that resembled Dylan enough but had a disclaimer and changed enough things but implied that may or may not work, but to say this is absolutely the truth is hard. The onus is on them to provie it, and as again, with books, it’s not so easy to prove such things, especially when one of the parties is no longer living. Edie, as you know, is dead, so she ain’t talkin’.

    One could point to some of his songs and say they elliptically refer to Edie but again, a lot of people speculate on what his songs mean and if you listen to Baez in No Direction Home, then she’s right – her quote about “A lot of people will be saying what these fucking songs are about… when I don’t know what they’re about…” (and he laughs, she says – *i paraphrase this, because I don’t remember exactly what she says but you get the point).

    We can interpret any number of ways. That doesn’t make it right. It’s hard. We may be right. Sure – some more right perhaps because there is more to back it up and we can substantiate our claims and that’s important and i think that’s key. Nobody has a problem with that. But this whole Edie thing – i really don’t know… Maybe there is enough to substantiate it. Obviously, Dylan feels quite comfortable saying there is not and feeling that nobody can prove beyond doubt that there was. Given that, I’d say he’s safe. The film will be released anyway perhaps. I haven’t heard the news.

    AS to the other, i’ve gone OT, apologies, it may not work. The same way i tend not to like covers of songs (though that said, i’m working on a List of the Moment that has some great covers, so i am contradicting myself here), it may work out. I’d have to see it. I’m sure I will, if for not other reason than to review it.

    See you List? I’m hoping for Thursday or before… keep an eye… or post here if you see… miss you.


  • Steve

    Hey, Sadi,
    Good to hear from you!

    Yes, it is difficult to say about these things re. stories about other people. Unless there is evidence I’ve seen to the contrary, I tend to take gossip with a pinch of salt, though even then, I tend to mind my own business, unless the gossip is about me, in which case, I would feel I have a right to know. Of course, I know virtually nothing of Dylan, so I wont even hazard an opinion on the movie as far as truthfulness goes, should I ever see it.

    Speaking of movies, I saw “Notes On A Scandal” with Judi Dench recently, and all I can say is, I’m glad it was just a story, very dark indeed. Amazing performances but quite disturbing. Have you seen any good movies recently, Sadi?

    Anyway, as it’s now 8 days since your post, I’ll check to see if your new List is out yet.