RIP D.A. Pennebaker: Watch Scenes from His Groundbreaking Bob Dylan Documentary Dont Look Back

Some­thing hap­pened to pop­u­lar cul­ture in the late 1960s, and we who seek to under­stand exact­ly what owe a debt of grat­i­tude to the doc­u­men­tary film­mak­er D.A. Pen­nebak­er, who died last week. That goes for those us who nev­er expe­ri­enced those heady times our­selves; those of us who did (and may have found the times a bit too heady to recall with any clar­i­ty); and even those of us not quite young enough to fath­om what was going on at the time, such as those already in mid­dle age by the Sum­mer of Love. Pen­nebak­er was him­self a mem­ber of that gen­er­a­tion, but the films that came out of his cov­er­age of the Mon­terey Pop Fes­ti­val — whose per­form­ers includ­ed Janis Joplin, Ravi Shankar, Jef­fer­son Air­plane, The Who, and Jimi Hen­drix — reveal that he could see some­thing big was hap­pen­ing.

Pen­nebak­er’s film­mak­ing also brought him into con­tact with the likes of John Lennon, David Bowie, Otis Red­ding, and Bob Dylan, the lat­ter being the star of Pen­nebak­er’s first music film Dont Look Back [sic]Released in 1967 but shot in 1965, it observes the singer’s tour of Eng­land that year as well as the events sur­round­ing it, offer­ing what Roger Ebert called, when the film first came out, “a fas­ci­nat­ing exer­cise in self-rev­e­la­tion car­ried out by Bob Dylan and friends,” a group that includes such gen­er­a­tional icons as Joan Baez and Dono­van.

Alas, “the por­trait that emerges is not a pret­ty one,” ren­dered as it is by the ciné­ma vérité style Pen­nebak­er had been devel­op­ing for more than a decade. That was made pos­si­ble in part by the advent of syn­chro­nous-sound cam­eras that could cap­ture real speech on loca­tion — “what peo­ple said to each oth­er,” in Pen­nebak­er’s words, as opposed to “what you thought up on a yel­low pad.”

All this exposed Dylan, in Ebert’s eyes, as “imma­ture, pet­ty, vin­dic­tive, lack­ing a sense of humor, over­ly impressed with his own impor­tance and not very bright.” In both his orig­i­nal review of Dont Look Back and his revis­i­ta­tion in 1998, when the film was select­ed for preser­va­tion in the U.S. Library of Con­gress’ Nation­al Film Reg­istry, he high­lights the scene of Dylan’s inter­view with Time Lon­don cor­re­spon­dent Horace Free­land Jud­son. Then, as now, a per­former who prefers to be pub­li­cized on his own terms, Dylan push­es back against any per­ceived attempt to define or explain him, espe­cial­ly by a rel­a­tive­ly old-school insti­tu­tion like Time. In this young Bob Dylan we have an embod­i­ment of the late-60s youth spir­it: amus­ing­ly defi­ant and pro­lif­i­cal­ly cre­ative, if also irre­spon­si­ble and arro­gant. (As Ebert wrote in 1998, “Did we actu­al­ly once take this twirp as our folk god?”)

Pen­nebak­er dis­cuss­es Dylan and Dont Look Back in the clip at the top of the post, which comes from a longer inter­view avail­able here. He also gets into 1966’s Eat the Doc­u­ment, the nev­er-offi­cial­ly-released fol­low-up to Dont Look Back pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture. In the Cri­te­ri­on Col­lec­tion video just above, Pat­ti Smith — some­how nev­er the sub­ject of a Pen­nebak­er film her­self — reflects on the role Dylan played in her life. “He was like my imag­i­nary boyfriend,” Smith says of the singer. “The first time I saw Dont Look Back, I had just come to New York to live.” She describes the inter­sec­tion of the move and the movie as “a piv­otal moment, because it encom­passed every­thing for me: it encom­passed the hubris of youth, it encom­passed art, poet­ry, the per­fect sun­glass­es, every­thing.” She saw the film so many times that she “knew all the dia­logue” — dia­logue that Pen­nebak­er just hap­pened to cap­ture, but which has long since become part of the cul­ture.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Do Look Back: Pen­nebak­er and Mar­cus Talk Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan Shares a Drug-Hazed Taxi Ride with John Lennon (1966)

Jef­fer­son Air­plane Plays on a New York Rooftop; Jean-Luc Godard Cap­tures It (1968)

Watch the First Trail­er for Mar­tin Scorsese’s New Film, Rolling Thun­der Revue: A Bob Dylan Sto­ry

Andy Warhol’s ‘Screen Test’ of Bob Dylan: A Clas­sic Meet­ing of Egos

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.