D.A. Pennebaker: always carry a lightbulb
Jun 2, 2007
It is now 40 years since the first screenings of Dont Look Back, D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary of a 1965 two-week British tour by a 24-year-old Bob Dylan. (The word ‘dont’ in the title deliberately lacks an apostrophe, a nod to George Bernard Shaw’s efforts to simplify the English language). It has become the archetypal pop music doco, and more. It has forever changed the way audiences view pop stars, and the way pop stars seek to be seen.
Ironically the film was nearly not seen at all. Light years from the massaged images of Elvis in the movies, or even the good-natured hi-jinks of the Beatles’ films, Dont Look Back was so raw that initially the only place Pennebaker could get it screened was a chain of porno houses.
It has few titles and no voiceovers. At times it’s hard to even make out what is being said. The sound is captured on the fly by a recordist who is often visible in the film. It was shot in 16mm black and white, with hand-held equipment modified by Pennebaker himself (he has a degree in mechanical engineering) to enable him to film without lights and light enough to “float through the world”.
Though it tracks its subject chronologically through a concert tour – the last that Dylan would undertake as a solo acoustic performer - culminating in a triumphant stint at the Royal Albert Hall, no song is heard performed in its entirety. Instead, we see Dylan in dressing rooms, hotels, haberdasheries and press conferences – the moments between the music.
For the burgeoning rock culture it provided a handbook of hipness. Dylan’s withering one-liners (“give the anarchist a cigarette”), surrealistic slogans (“keep a good head and always carry a lightbulb”), heavy shades, pegged pants and unruly curls have been copied time and again. Patti Smith has said she “learned to walk” by imitating Dylan’s gait in Dont Look Back.
For rockumentarians, it has become a template. Truth Or Dare, Alek Keshishian’s 1993 cinema verite portrait of Madonna, borrowed its grainy black-and-white look and fly-on-the-wall technique, as did Sam Jones’s I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, Sam Jones’s study of alt-rock group Wilco.
And there is the famous opening sequence, in which Dylan stands in an alleyway displaying a series of cards showing key phrases from his ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ while the song blasts in the background. It has been called the first rock video, and paid homage by everyone from INXS (their 1987 video for ‘Mediate’) to actor/director Tim Robbins (in his 1993 political spoof Bob Roberts). Even in the world beyond pop culture Dont Look Back had an impact. Samuel Beckett reportedly sent for a transcript.
Pennebaker confesses he knew virtually nothing about Bob Dylan when he decided to make the film. Fifteen years Dylan’s senior, he was a fan of Duke Ellington, not folk or rock. Dylan, on the other hand, had heard of Pennebaker. Sara Lowndes (soon to become Sara Dylan) had worked with him in a film-making division of Time-Life; Pennebaker had given her a copy of his first film, Daybreak Express (a five-minute collage with an Ellington soundtrack.)
But it was Dylan’s then-manager, Albert Grossman, who suggested that Pennebaker might like to document the forthcoming British tour, and arranged an initial meeting at the Ceder Tavern, a Greenwich Village watering hole popular amongst painters and musicians.
Pennebaker recalls Dylan’s first words to him. “There was a woman sitting at the back of the restaurant and he asked me if I thought that was Lotte Lenya, Kurt Weill’s wife. It wasn’t, but it was interesting that he would know about her.
“And then he asked about writing lines from his songs on pieces of paper and holding them up and I said that was a fantastic idea. And I could see that he had lots of pieces of paper!
“He intrigued me but not for musical reasons, because I hadn’t heard any music at that point. When he talked it was sort of street talk but not really. It was sort of like the lines in Kerouac’s books.
“Once he said ‘all words that rhyme mean the same thing’, and I thought that may be the most wise thing I ever heard or the dumbest, I don’t know which. But that was typical of lines that would come out of him. That’s why I listened for all the conversation I could.”
But it was only once Pennebaker was on the road with Dylan that he began to appreciate what Bob Neuwirth – Dylan’s tour manager and commentator on the latest DVD issue of the film – refers to as his “industrial-strength charisma”.
“It did intrigue me to see all those staid Brits, absolutely spellbound by this guy up on stage all by himself. And you would think, these are very sophisticated audiences, and they were just held in place – paralysed - and I thought, they’re getting something here that they’ve never gotten and that they think they should have gotten”.
The degree of access afforded to Pennebaker might have provided material for a salacious tell-all. After all, Joan Baez, with whom Dylan had recently ended a well-publicised romance, was along for the ride, seemingly unaware that Dylan was now courting Sara.
Yet Pennebaker seems to have had little interest in the players’ private lives. Consistent with his purely observational approach, he didn’t even interview Dylan, though he believes Dylan was expecting him to.
What did fascinate him was the way the British press pounced on Dylan from the moment he landed, barraging him with such inane questions as “What is your real message?” as if out to prove the folk poet a fake.
Dylan, for his part, refused to give pat answers, turning the press sessions into surrealist dramas. Backstage at one concert, a gauche young reporter (actually Terry Ellis, later manager of Jethro Tull and founder of Chrysalis records) has his interview turned into an inquisition. “What do you do? What is your purpose in the world?” Dylan fires back at the hapless Ellis, between guitar strums.
Dylan similarly turns the tables on a Time magazine reporter, assuring him that “you’re going to die. It could be twenty years, it could be tomorrow. How you do your job and how seriously you take yourself in the face of that you decide for yourself”. The journalist’s face is a full-screen study in discomfort.
And then there’s Donovan. Just a few months into his own popular ascendency, the Scottish songster comes across as a naïve Dylan clone, complete with curls and cap. Meanwhile the press are manufacturing a rivalry between the pair. “Who’s this Donovan? Already I hate him”, Dylan snarls early in the film.
When Donovan finally gains an audience with Dylan in a hotel room, towards the end of the movie, you see Dylan relax at the realisation the newcomer is no threat.
Yet Pennebaker says he never saw the exchange as hostile. “The thing I felt about Donovan from the very beginning was he was totally likeable, and Dylan - far from wanting to dislike him because of the competitive edge that was being rubbed into his nose every time he turned around - I would catch sometimes when no one was watching, playing one of Donovan’s records.
“I never see anything mean in that film. But people tell me ‘oh boy, he sure was a sonofabitch’ and I think, were they seeing a different film than I thought I saw?
“But people see what they set out to see. It’s happened to me many times. I’ve seen films that I hated and I went back two weeks later and I loved them and thought what happened in my head? And I think that happens with Dont Look Back. Just because people think they should have an attitude about it. It’s not a film they can just pass over lightly and not think about, so that when anybody asks them, they know what to say.”
Pennebaker is aware of his pioneering status, yet seems reluctant to take too much credit. It is only when I suggest his influence on the Madonna film that he explains the cameraman for much of it was Robert Leacock, son of Ricky Leacock with whom Pennebaker developed his custom camera equipment and collaborated on his early movies. The first time Robert used a camera was when Pennebaker handed him one to help document a visit to the US by avant garde French film-maker Jean Luc Goddard.
“By now everybody knows how to do this. I don't expect there’s a filmmaker going who can’t give you a little cinema verite if you call for it, but I Dont know how to make any other kind of film. If anybody asks me to make another kind of film I’d have to go to lunch.”
Since Dont Look Back, Pennebaker has gone on to make numerous docos; some musical (Monterey Pop, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, Only The Strong Survive), others political, such as The War Room, an acclaimed study of the behind-the-scenes strategists in Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign.
Dylan, meanwhile, has become the world’s most visible recluse, touring the world incessantly (he performs roughly one night in three) yet somehow managing to remain as enigmatic as ever.
Is there perhaps another film to be made about Dylan touring today?
“There’s an obsessive quality to it that is interesting. If he wanted me to film something I would of course do it. But what makes a film work is always kind of mysterious and you don’t really find out until long after you’ve finished it. With Dylan, you want to know something about him but you don’t want to know everything about him. You just want to know what he knows, because he does know something and we all want to know what it is.
“That’s why we do most films, to find out something we don’t know. That’s why you’d film it. To find that out.”