There is a moment in Don’t Look Back as Bob Dylan plays a song on his guitar in what is probably his hotel room with a bunch of friends and acquaintances sitting around listening. They smile, make small comments amongst themselves, and are all simply caught up in the impromptu performance. Each and every one of the people in the room could be a famous person or anonymous, a wonderfully maddening byproduct of D.A. Pennebaker’s intentional opaqueness in presenting his documentary. Dylan himself is casual as he strums his guitar lackadaisically as the afternoon passes lazily by. And yet, as cliche as it is to say this, the moment is magical because in a brief moment we see not Bob Dylan the artist and performer, but we simply see a bunch of friends hanging out in a room and enjoying each other’s presence. We see the exuberance of youth, the overconfidence of young belief, and the hopeful expectations that they might be the generation to change the world. Though the cynical and older person in me wants to scoff at that naivety and Dylan himself throughout the rest of the movie doubts the veracity of that belief, Pennebaker forces me to linger on these faces and realize there is something incredibly beautiful about the big and impractical dreams of our youth. And more importantly it illuminates that the best moments in life may not be the spotlit ones.
As a pure rock documentary, Don’t Look Back fails on so many conventional levels. We don’t get the voiceover telling us how important Bob Dylan is. We get no backstory, no clues as to his inspiration, and no exhilarating retelling of his rise from anonymity to bonafide star. Even his musical performances on his tour are presented in frustrating snippets. The whole thing lacks polish and shine. It feels like a personal home video of a tour, with its dark shadows and grainy picture. Scenes simply drift in and out with no discernible beginning or end and are pieced together without any real narrative to cling on to. And as abruptly as the whole thing begins, it simply peters out and ends. But this is exactly why it is probably one of the greatest rock documentaries ever because we get a snapshot glimpse as to who Bob Dylan apart from his public persona. Stripped of facade and a shiny production veneer we get to see as unfiltered a look at a rock star as we possibly could get. We get to see Dylan’s public persona which is glib and caustic with a media he distrusts while being appropriately roguish with fans sharply contrast with him when the spotlight is away – a more subdued, insecure, and often times bored person. It is clear that the success he has garnered does not rest easily on his shoulders. We see him betray more emotion and enjoyment in the music he plays in private than he allows himself on stage. Famous people like Joan Baez drift in and out of his life without much ceremony or aplomb. He gets along with some fans while others grate him. He is simultaneously confident about his work but quick to dismiss any claim that his work is more than superfluous. And above all he seems to love a good verbal scrap now and then. It is all so painfully and vulnerably ordinary.
It is hard to imagine something like this really getting made today. An artist’s publicist would shoot it down instantly or managers would intervene and try to censor the work. Literally millions of dollars is spent to make sure that an artist’s public image is carefully curated and maintained to best suit the market he or she wants to target. The rawness and vulnerability of Bob Dylan at a crossroads being shown publicly is the anathema of everything the modern music industry desires. But perhaps that is why the work remains vital today. Pennebaker was granted incredible access to follow around perhaps the greatest artist in his day like a fly on the wall and catch him with his guard down. We get to see the cracks in the veneer and peer behind the curtain to find a superstar made human. It is fascinating and heartbreaking at the same time to see your heroes brought down. But ultimately it is this vulnerable humanness that both helps elevate the power of their transcendent art and, as the cliche would have it, make us realize we are all not really that different. I doubt that Don’t Look Back has a deeper message than that, but what a captivating message it is to see.