Friday, February 24, 2017

Rock Cinema - Don't Look Back

With regard to the recent debacle with the Nobel Prize, nothing has changed since the making of Don't Look Back in 1965. Some people saw the Nobel snub as a classic moment of Dylanesque mystery and disdain for pomp; others took it as, per one Swedish Academy member, "impolite and arrogant." No indeed, nothing has changed. Flash back 50 years to the young Bob Dylan on a three-week concert tour of England. Don't Look Back is a tour de force of cinema vérité. It's fascinating to watch a young artist of extraordinary talent asked questions about the meaning of his music as he distractedly twists the focus to expose Dylan the asshole. But that's what has always defined Dylan, and that’s what defines Don’t Look Back. Dylan may have been the first to say that the answer to all the questions is in the music. How tiresome it is to hear on Charlie Rose the endless diatribe of actors and comedians talking of their "craft." Dylan, way back when, knew that it was all bullshit.


Dylan's incredulous manner is funny, ironic, and sarcastic; especially with the totally "out of it" reporter from Time magazine. The interview is one of the subjects of a very informative commentary by director and documentary genius D.A. Pennebaker and Bob Neuwirth, the tour manager. Yet Dylan's treatment of his young fans is a sweet counterpoint to the sarcastic treatment of the press. He is kind and very solicitous of a gaggle of young girls he has up to his room before a performance. Contrived, maybe.

Don’t Look Back is an engrossing, intimate film and a picture-perfect snapshot of black-and-white Britain in the mid-60s. There are two charged scenes where he turns the journalistic process on its head as he interviews reporters, challenging them on the very nature of what they're doing. The movie gets close to him, charting his endless cigarettes and restless fingers ever-eager to be strumming a guitar or playing a piano, but he never gets close to it, and by the end we really don't know any more about the man than when we started. Pink Floyd wrote a lyric which sums him up perfectly - "If you wanna find out what's behind these cold eyes / You'll just have to claw your way through this disguise.” There are issues with the film, of course: the kitchen-sink cinéma vérité sound and picture is third-rate, and because it's all just raw footage with no voice-overs or explanations you have no idea who the (very famous in their day) people are or what all the scenes are about, but that’s picayune. Instead, relish in the film, the excitement of the era and of course a particular treat, the film opens with Dylan's famous cue-card Subterranean Homesick Blues short film, among the first “music videos,” not to mention the snippets we get of Joan Baez, who's beautiful voice shines through the scratchy soundtrack.