Bob Dylan has been enjoying a resurgence of popularity in the last two years with the release of his album Time Out Of Mind (an album absurdly over-praised by aging rock critics) and the release of his infamous 1966 concert in England, where he split his audience in half by going electric. In light of this current attention, it’s too bad that D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary Don’t Look Back seems a lost artifact now, an account of a 1965 tour in England that caught Dylan at a crossroads in his career.
We follow Bob and his crew – Joan Baez, manager Albert Grossman, tour manager Bob Neuwirth – on a mini-tour, during which Dylan’s “The Times They Are A Changin’” was in the British top ten. Yet Dylan is much more interested in his newer single just starting up the British charts, “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” The new electric sound in “Blues” was already disturbing the folk faithful who regarded Dylan as their very own eternally acoustic Woody Guthrie. It’s fascinating to watch Dylan deal with the press, who seem determined to tag him as an angry folk singer at a time when his lyrics were becoming increasingly surreal.
This film shows Dylan at an artistic crossroads, both amused and angered at the journalists who look to him as an oracle of truth. We get remarkable footage of Dylan putting on a young student/journalist with a hilarious discourse on the nature of friendship (much to the delight of one-time Animals keyboardist Alan Price, slumming here) and a scene where, backstage before an s.r.o. Royal Albert Hall gig, he vents his frustration with the press on a middle-aged Time magazine reporter whom he takes to task for journalistic irresponsibility.
Musically, we get a last look at Dylan’s folk messenger incarnation in songs such as “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” as well as a glimpse into the new Dylan in “Gates of Eden” and the sublimely gorgeous “Love Minus Zero/No Limit.” It’s fascinating to watch Dylan in front of a crowd (made up of men in ties) hanging on his every lyric and harmonica lick with the knowledge that this was the same audience that would yell “Judas!” at him in 1966. But Dylan must have been used to such misnomers: at the end of the film, manager Grossman informs Dylan that the press havs labeled him an anarchist because he offers no solutions.
The film is riveting, documenting a moment in pop music history where the music was changing, not by the dictates of the audience, but by the sheer will of musicians – like Dylan – willing to risk everything for their art.