“If we were someplace else I’d punch you in your goddamn nose.” — Bob Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman to hotel manager
Although documentaries on music and musicians are numerous, most mainstream ones come across as promotional vehicles or linear overviews of careers that seem like 90-minute music videos. It’s unfortunate, because things began quite differently. In fact, the 1960s saw some of the best music documentaries of all time, including Gimme Shelter, Monterey Pop, and D. A. Pennebaker’s venerated classic covering Bob Dylan’s 1965 U.K. tour, Dont Look Back (sic).
The intro sequence alone, with “Subterranean Homesick Blues” playing and Bob Dylan dropping cue cards one at a time, has been copied and parodied so many times in popular culture that people have often seen the references before the referenced. It was originally conceived by Dylan as a sort of Scopitone movie, a French invention that was essentially a jukebox that played a 16mm film, the forerunner of the music video. Although by 1967, this song could almost be seen as Dylan nostalgia–so fast was his trajectory into, and through the other side, of the rock scene–at the time of shooting it was likely a sly dig at the folkies, flaunting his new noisy aesthetic that would come to define much of his middle career. The then-recently-released “Subterranean Homesick Blues” hangs heavy in the air throughout the entire film, a harbinger of what was to come. Teenage girls complain to him and Dylan shoots back with “Oh, you’re that type, I get it,” before kindly reframing with “But I like to play with my friends…You don’t mind if my friends play on my record, do you?” Today, it is impossible for us to comprehend what an alien sounding and oddly structured song this was for fans accustomed to “Blowin’ in the Wind” or “The Times They Are a-Changin’.” Although these were recorded just a couple of years prior and can be heard on car radios throughout the film, promoting his concert appearances, Dylan is so clearly bored with these tunes while performing live that he flies through them at fast tempos. They feel like necessary obligations en route to the new introspection of “It’s All Right, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” “Gates of Eden,” and “Mr. Tambourine Man.”
Dylan is so canonized within American popular culture today, it is important to remember his place in music in 1965, when he continued the process of stepping away from a folk scene that he had outgrown creatively but which still clung to him as their conduit into the semi-mainstream. The first small step can be seen in 1964’s Another Side of Bob Dylan, where he abandoned politics for poetics while keeping the acoustic aesthetic completely intact. At the time of this tour Bringing It All Back Home had just been released, which saw Dylan split literally in half: Side 1, electric; Side 2, acoustic. The next album, Highway 61 Revisited, would see him take the full electric plunge. It was a huge artistic gamble, tossing away an entire folk fanbase that loved and supported him for a rock scene that knew nothing of his music, only that he was some Woody Guthrie wannabe in a train conductor’s hat. It’s worth bearing in mind that Dylan could have very easily fallen on his face and ended up a mockery, rejected by both audiences.
Pennebaker’s grainy, unpolished film captured a musician at work like no one had ever seen before: goading on reporters; playing Hank Williams in his hotel room; looking utterly exhausted. Some of the confrontation scenes themselves are now classics of rock pop culture, referred to in such shorthand as “The Science Student,” “The High Sheriff’s Lady,” and “Who Threw the Glass in the Street?” It is incredible to think that by the time Dont Look Back saw its 1967 theatrical release, Dylan was done. He had conquered electric, inspired countless imitators, cut two more albums–one of them a double, Blonde on Blonde–and toured endlessly against hostile crowds with the Hawks (The Band) in tow. Pennebaker was there to film this too, through Europe in 1966. The final product, never officially released but known as Eat the Document by generations of bootleggers, was dark, depressing, and utterly unwatchable. In it, drastically underweight and strung-out, one sees very clearly the end that was fast approaching; and it’s probably sheer luck that Bob Dylan didn’t end up on the roster along with Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Brian Jones. The eventual crash was both chemical and literal: amphetamines; heroin; vitamin-B12 injections; and the infamous (and still debated) July ’66 motorcycle wreck that almost broke his neck. Dylan, barely 27 years old, went into hiding and started fresh, back to acoustics for the subdued John Wesley Harding LP, not touring again for nearly eight years.