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Weekly Alibi Bob Dylan: Don't Look Back

By Michael Henningsen

DECEMBER 7, 1998:  The most intriguing element of Don't Look Back is that at the time of its creation, it was the first of its kind--a scatological, in-the-moment documentary. But it's not a documentary in the truest sense of the word. During a three-and-a-half-week period during Dylan's 1965 concert tour of England, filmmaker D. A. Pennebaker shot 20 hours of film, capturing Dylan during perhaps the most angered, tentative period of his then fledgling career. The resulting film, pared down to 96 minutes, is quite revealing, but only in the sense that it offers shreds of insight into a man who was to become the greatest songwriter of his generation and the father of modern folk rock.

Dylan himself remains one of the most enigmatic figures in the pop world, shrouded in the irony of fiercely crusading for personal privacy in spite of having chosen a very public medium for defining his own life. Much of Don't Look Back centers around the cleverly--sometimes angrily--elusive Dylan alternately pandering to, then antagonizing throngs of hungry journalists who relentlessly pursued the 23-year-old American curiosity throughout his 1965 tour as if disciples of an oracle. Such moments in the film serve both to afford glimpses of Dylan's comedic persona and to underscore the convoluted mysteries that to this day confound critics and fans alike.

In 1965, Dylan had already released three of his most critically lauded albums (Bob Dylan, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan and The Times They Are a Changin') and was an international celebrity. Don't Look Back presents Dylan as somewhat surprised at his own success, yet somehow intrigued by the power he suddenly seemed to have over the people around him. The impromptu nature of the film, coupled with the fact that Dylan was already busy cultivating a myth of anti-celebrity for himself and categorical denial of any tangible importance whatsoever of his deeply personal, message laden songs, results in an air of conflict that can be as frustrating to watch unfold as it can be entertaining.

If not for its star, Don't Look Back would essentially languish as a subterranean instructional film on exactly how to be a whining brat through sly use of illogic, nonsequitur, defiance and spin doctoring. Almost without exception, Dylan answers questions with questions, or simply barks insults and accusations--not just at the press (many of whom seem genuinely hurt by Dylan's reactionary rhetoric), but at fans as well. But the ever-present sense of humor Dylan wields like a phantom dagger manages to keep the film from becoming nothing more than an annoying circus with the Freewheeling One as ringmaster.

While it's impossible to characterize a film as spontaneous as Don't Look Back as flawed in any way--what you see is what you get--it's still not for everyone. Tantalizing concert footage abounds, with Dylan at the first of many career peaks (not to mention personas). But protracted scenes of Dylan pacing the dressing room floor searching in earnest for his cane, tuning his guitar or giving he and his friends a good laugh at the expense of an unsuspecting clan of spellbound critics and fans aren't everyone's idea of a good time.

There's no play-by-play to be found in Don't Look Back, no narrator, no chronology, even, of the short period of time it covers. And that's as much to its credit as not. But the granular, alternately funny, nasty and just plain silly nature of the film is its charm. Here is Bob Dylan at his most boggling, but also at his most brilliant. The which-is-what is left to the individual to decide. Don't Look Back, like Dylan himself, is nothing if not one-of-a-kind.

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