HE WAS THERE: D.A. Pennebaker

Accompanied by my friend Gina, last Monday I had the pleasure to view D.A. Pennebaker’s brilliant documentary Don’t Look Back which chronicles Bob Dylan’s tour through England in 1965. And thanks to the wonderful program direction of the Film Forum, we not only viewed a beautiful restored copy on the big screen, but we also got to listen to Mr. Pennebaker speak about the film in person. 

Don’t Look Back is unarguably monumental. It’s not merely one of the first rock n’ roll documentaries, but it one of the first American films to showcase the Cinéma Vérité technique, defined as “a television-style technique of recording life and people as they really are, using hand-held cameras, natural sound and the minimum of rehearsal and editing.”Or as Pennebaker so bluntly stated: “Well, it’s like your first date; you make it up as you go along.” You can listen to his refreshingly unpretentious perspective here in the audio of the Q&A from last Monday evening.

Furthermore, it’s not just an important documentary in film history, but it is an unparallelled document of what I’d argue as the most artistically important era of Dylan’s career. It’s also the most intimate view of the genius that exists–even with the advent of the Scorsese documentary, a far more traditional example of the documentary medium. The great irony of this work is that although it is so intimate in scope, the subject never lets the audience get remotely close to his inner being. Unlike another great backstage documentary Meeting People is Easy, where we see Radiohead’s Thom Yorke unraveled on tour, Pennebaker’s portrait of Dylan showcases him as an aloof waif, a unwavering persona who reacts to fame with alternating moments of disdain and absurd humor.

Throughout his jaunt in England, Dylan is, I can only assume, stoned out of his mind. He chainsmokes. He insults journalist after journalist (often with hilarious results). He wastes a lot of time backstage and in hotel rooms with his entourage of foppish hanger-ons and beautiful mod women. Drunk, high, and gleefully sophomoric, Dylan and his pack also only vaguely tolerate a very annoying and much older Joan Baez (who disappears midway through film, for the good of all of us). Donovan, the subject of both jealousy and derision, is their most constant butt of jokes. Check out this clip of  a very drunk Alan Price (from the seminal Brit Invation band The Animals) and Dylan discussing Donovan’s merits.

  

Even though the majority of footage shows Dylan as a hipper-than-hell jokester (whose jokes are often edged with genuine cruelty), the actual concert footage is breathtaking. Looking back now on so many Dylan eras (check out, if you have not already, Todd’s Haynes’ I’m Not There, still at Film Forum, for an avant-garde exploration of them, not to mention Cate Blanchett’s dead-on impersonation), it is refreshing to watch one single era. There is no, quite simply, no better way to understand Dylan’s importance than to see the brash genius up on stage alone, haunting and historic, armed only with lyrics, his harmonica and a guitar.

D.A. Pennebaker also directed another one of my favorite music docs, the concert video Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars: The Motion Picture (1973), which documents the last concert of the Ziggy era, where David Bowie and his backing group The Spiders from Mars perform at the Hammersmith Odeon. This is the famous “Rock n’ Roll Suicide” show when Ziggy proclaimed it to be their final concert (leaving a perplexed and forlorn audience). Ziggy is the last time the world would see Mark Bolan and David Bowie do that dirty oh so dirty! guitar fellating thing and the last time Bowie would don feathers in such a glorious and beyond-human fashion.

 

Unless, of course, you watched Jonathan Reys Meyers as the Bowie/sorta Eno/sorta Lou Reed avatar in Todd Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine…hmm, do you think Mr. Haynes might have a bit of a Pennebaker fetish?

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