The year is 1965 and musician Bob Dylan is performing what looks to be his final acoustic tour for a while as his album Bringing It All Back Home has recently been released. The locations for this tour are all in Britain, and Dylan has arrived there to be greeted with an abundance of press attention and fan adulation, but the questions he is asked at the press conferences appear to miss the point, and fans are disturbed by his latest development of embracing the electric guitar...
Of course, that's not how Don't Look Back begins at all, is it? No, it opens with a prototypical pop video as Dylan holds up cards with the lyrics to Subterranean Homesick Blues while the song blasts away on the soundtrack and Allen Ginsberg hangs around in the background. It sets the film in context as a turning point, not simply for the artist but for popular music as well, but like everyone else in the documentary, director D.A. Pennebaker seems intent on getting to the heart and soul of the subject, a man who eschews such analysis throughout.
In fact, Dylan is something of a trickster figure, self-amused and eager to wind others up underneath his lightly bemused air. You come away thinking it must be exhausting being him, with every person in the film giving advice or soliciting his opinion, determined to be part of his orbit. The concert footage is almost an afterthought and very few songs are allowed to be heard in their entirety, which is surprising since it sounds as if Dylan is racing through them, as if keen to get the tour over with so he can get back to those friends he mentions.
Musician friends, that is, as he explains to a group of teenage girls who are hanging around for his autograph and are wary of his new sound. They are perhaps the best critics in the film, for elsewhere we hear journalists adopting achingly pretentious tones for their reports, but here the girls simply tell Dylan that the latest material doesn't sound like him, a casual but piercing insight into how revolutionary his progression would be. In time, his electric sound would be as accepted as his folk, and when we see the clip of him a few short years before to illustrate where he has come from, it appears to be a different person.
If there's a film to make you cynical about the music industry it's this one, where even a performer with the integrity of Dylan is a commodity as we see in the scene where manager Albert Grossman haggles to get his charge the most amount of money from the B.B.C. It's no wonder the star comes across as cynical and content to allow himself to be cocooned in this world, but then perhaps we aren't seeing him to his best advantage in the host of behind the scenes clips. He barely looks at Joan Baez throughout, poor old Donovan becomes a phantom who haunts Dylan's footsteps culminating in a bit where he performs his best Dylan impression for his idol only to be put in his place by a musical riposte, and one Time journo feels the sharp end of Dylan's tongue when he asks one stupid question too many. Don't Look Back is not an easy watch, it's shot on grainy, handheld 16mm for a start, and it gives more insight into the circus around its centre than illuminating the evasive Dylan himself.