In a 1967 review of Don’t Look Back, the D.A. Pennebaker documentary that chronicles Bob Dylan on a picaresque British concert tour, The New York Times wrote, “It will be a good joke on us all if, in fifty years or so, Dylan is regarded as a significant figure in English poetry.”
Now that those 50 years have all but passed, one can imagine that Dylan is having the last laugh. He has become one of America’s most highly regarded artists: a musician whose influence straddles multiple decades and a lyricist worthy of the poets and authors who inspired him on his journey. His vast archives are headed to Oklahoma to keep company with Woody Guthrie’s. As he prepares to celebrate his 75th birthday on Tuesday, he remains as productive as ever, still touring relentlessly and set to release Fallen Angels, his 37th studio album, on Friday.
Yet Dylan, the person, remains elusive and seemingly unknowable, never quite as accessible as he was in Don’t Look Back in 1965, when he gave Pennebaker unrestricted access to follow him to London and beyond, to see him grapple with his burgeoning fame and construct his irascible persona in real time during a frustrating publicity tour.
This influential film (which begins with a rudimentary music video for Subterranean Homesick Blues, in which Dylan tosses off cue cards bearing words from the song) is being commemorated with an exhibition at the Morrison Hotel Gallery in SoHo. The exhibition, which features image stills from Don’t Look Back as well as original movie posters, will be on view at the gallery’s New York location from Friday through June 14 and in its West Hollywood, California, gallery later next month.
Pennebaker, 90, remains a prolific artist in his own right; his latest documentary, Unlocking the Cage, directed with Chris Hegedus, his wife and frequent collaborator, will be released on Wednesday. In a recent telephone interview, he reflected on the creation of Don’t Look Back and his journeys with Dylan, about whom he knew almost nothing when he was asked to direct the documentary. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.
Q: How were you first approached to make this film?
A: Albert Grossman, who was Dylan’s manager, came to see me in my office. He wanted to know if I’d like to go along with Dylan on a soon-to-be trip to England. I had never really done a tour with a musician, and that was an interesting idea for me. So I said, yeah, I’d love to do it. It was easy as that.
Q: Were you familiar with Bob Dylan or his music?
A: I knew the person that he later married [Dylan’s first wife, Sara]. She worked with us for a while. But I didn’t know much about him. I heard maybe one song that he had on the radio at the time. I always thought of musicians as being the saints of our time. They live for music, and nothing else is interesting to them.
Q: Did you do any research on him before you started filming?
A: No. The thing about this kind of filmmaking is, the filmmaking is the research. You don’t ever research, because you want to have everything come to you in a life way. You watch what goes on around you, and that’s how you learn.
Q: Did you want to have a preliminary conversation with Dylan?
A: We arranged to meet in a bar down in the Village with Bobby Neuwirth, who was his road manager. We sat and talked, and then he said, “I’ve got this idea for a film where I take a whole lot of sheets of paper and write lyrics for a song, and hold them up as the lyrics come up in the song and then I just toss them away.” And I said, “That’s a fantastic idea.” So we brought along about 50 shirt cardboards, and that’s how we did the whole thing in the alleyway (Subterranean Homesick Blues).
Q: When you arrived with Dylan in Britain, you saw him greeted by a mob of fans and police officers. What did you make of that reception?
A: I didn’t have any idea of what was going to happen. I had thought that Albert had asked me to make the film as a promotion for Dylan’s tours. In listening to the way he talked to people, I got intrigued by the way he spoke — by the way he used language. He uses the same words, the same language we all learnt in high school. But he uses it slightly differently. I was intrigued by his Byronic quality. I decided I wasn’t going to make a music film at all. I was going to make a film about this person. I thought, years from now, people will want to know what he was like.
Q: Did you look at Dylan and think, this is a once-in-a-lifetime artist?
A: No, I never thought such thoughts. What I thought was, this person is trying to generate himself. He’s trying to figure out who he is and what he wants to do. So I filmed him talking to people and listening to people. When the concerts came, I would only shoot little parts of them. I didn’t want it to be a music film. I wanted it to be a film about a person who was finding out who he was.
Q: Some people watch Dylan’s interactions in this film, with the press in particular, and think he’s being quite bratty.
A: Oh, yeah. That’s true. After the film, some people thought he was really a [expletive]. And some people thought he was interesting. [The press] were sent to do a story on this guy who’d arrived in London. They didn’t know much about him. It was just a day’s story. Dylan’s sense, in a way, was pearls before swine — if they didn’t know who he was or why he was, it wasn’t anything he was going to try to mend. He just went with them as if it was some sort of comic show of misperceptions. I understood that.
Q: How did you film the famous opening sequence for ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’?
A: We first tried to do it in the garden of the hotel, and a cop came along and was grabbing me and telling me to stop. So we went into the alley, where there were no cops, and we did it just one time, and we just stuck a tape recorder in front of Dylan and it played the song. We had done the signs the night before, and Donovan had helped — Donovan was a very good artist, it turns out — and Joan Baez. I think I’d even done some, but I can’t remember which ones (laughs).
Q: Was there ever a moment on the tour when Dylan or Grossman came to regret the access they had given you?
A: No, they didn’t really pay much attention to me. I just had this homemade camera on my shoulder and I never asked him any questions. I never interviewed anyone. I never, in a sense, bothered them the way you could be bothered by a person making a film.
Q: How did you and Dylan continue your working relationship after ‘Don’t Look Back’?
A: After that film was made and released, we had a hard time getting it distributed, because distributors would look at it and say it’s too ratty-looking. So we had to distribute it ourselves. The following year, [Dylan] came to me and said, “Now I want to make a film and I want to direct it — you’ve got your film, now I want you to shoot my film.” So I said OK. Off we went to film this tour with the Band. And he didn’t know anything more about directing than I did. The film [Eat the Document] was basically a continuation of Don’t Look Back, but it belonged to him. It was like Abraham Lincoln had made a film — everybody was going to look at it. It didn’t matter how bad it was or how good it was; that wouldn’t be the point of it.
Q: What happened to that movie?
A: It had a life, but a very short one. Dylan decided he didn’t like it after a while and so it got withdrawn. Eventually a lot of the footage went to Marty Scorsese, who used it in a film [No Direction Home: Bob Dylan], and I thought that was a pretty good film. [Dylan’s] film is still lying moribund, waiting to be generated. And maybe eventually it will. But it isn’t my problem. It’s his film and I’d love to see it happen, because there’s some fantastic footage in it. But meanwhile, it lies in a drawer somewhere, waiting to come to life.
Q: Do you regard Dylan, or the film itself, any differently now than at the time you made it?
A: No, I see it just as I saw it at the time. That person, to me, is still intriguing just because people are still fascinated by him. He doesn’t have a commanding presence in terms of the celebrity world. He’s just somebody that everybody knows who he is, and has private thoughts about him. And he endures. That whole idea of enduring intrigues people. Because not many people endure. Even people that you thought at the time were going to be the Abraham Lincolns of our era have gone. And Dylan’s still there. I think he’s still pretty much the same person he was.
Q: Do you feel lucky that you had this opportunity to chronicle Dylan before he became more media-shy?
A: Oh yeah. But I feel that way about a lot of things. A lot of my life was with luck. With David Bowie [for the documentary Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars], we weren’t even supposed to make a film there. But the minute I saw him, I thought: I’m going to make a film with this guy. When these things come to you, you grab them, you don’t hesitate. You don’t wait and see what happens. You go when the movie starts.
Q: When you look at other pop stars of today who are known for their petulance — Kanye West or Justin Bieber — is it possible that, as your film showed, they might be more crafty behind the scenes?
A: I don’t know. You’d have to get into their lives and spend time with them. Poets are a special breed and I have no idea what generates them. It isn’t the thing I always thought when I was younger, that artists were people that could draw pictures. Artists are people that live unmastered. That is, they’re loyal to no one but themselves. True artists. If you do that in our modern world, that means you don’t work for anybody. That means you have a hard time making a living and paying rent.
Q: Do you have any mementos you saved from ‘Don’t Look Back’ — any of the cards from ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’?
A: No. We shot a second version of it on the roof, and it was very windy and I think they blew out all over London. I never saw them again. We never kept anything except the cameras. But there’s nobody to process the film anymore, so they’re kind of useless.