Bob Dylan in the iconic Subterranean Homesick Blues music video from D A Pennebaker's Dont Look Back

Bob Dylan in the iconic Subterranean Homesick Blues
music video from D A Pennebaker’s Dont Look Back

Dont Look Back is as ironic a title as I could hope for in my series in which I look back at classic documentaries. (It’s been a while since the first one.) But I’ve had rockumentaries — an all-encompassing title I’ll apply to any documentary about music — on the brain, thanks to all of the new ones recently on the festival circuit. (The only one I’m interested in is Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest. Others, including the ones about Elton John, Ozzy Osbourne, the Foo Fighters, and Kings of Leon, I am not.)

But how could I not exhume this seminal rockumentary about Bob Dylan? It’s been a cultural touching stone in so many ways — for music, for documentaries, for the ’60s — that I am sure most of you have seen it before. I, however, hadn’t. Now I know what I’d been missing.

What makes a rockumentary great? Of course, there has to be a compelling depiction of the music. And, as with most other documentaries, there ought to be a feeling of unique access to a subject. And that’s never more important than with a rockumentary, because we fans of music tend to fetishize musicians, and we gobble up every real morsel that we can find backstage.

And I’ll add another vital attribute to what makes a rockumentary great: It’s when the documentary is about something even greater than the music.

Director D A Pennebaker‘s Dont Look Back came out in 1967, when Dylan was at the height of his iconic status as a folk musician. It was shot during his 1965 British tour in deliriously sexy black and white with long shots of Dylan hanging out backstage with his pals (including Joan Baez). It’s got all of the staples, or, what would become staples, of what we’ve come to expect from a rockumentary: impromptu jam sessions, band managers cussing out hotel managers, fans chasing beloved artists, the backstage walk before a show, and the ludicrous press conferences in which journalists lob inane questions at disdainful musicians who are just too cool for it all.

But Dont Look Back is most remembered for is how it truly pulls the curtain back on what a rock star is: a human being. Here’s Dylan, a folksy kid who sings about injustice, being a royal prick to half the people he meets. He bullies journalists who are half as intelligent as he is and he bullies fellow musician Donovan, upstaging him with a song, and then belittling him. Pennebaker’s camera is brilliant as he zooms in on reaction shots, clearly giving the filmmaker’s editorial opinion on the proceedings before him. Objective cinéma vérité methinks not.

Maybe Dylan’s not a jerk. He’s just a guy with genius talent who was placed on a pedestal. And he was too smart to numbly accept the accolades. Instead, he reveled in his own glory (can’t blame him), while expressing disdain for the idolatry.

So, how is this rockumentary about more than just the music? It must have been great to watch then, but, now, with the passage of time, it’s a beautiful documentation of a generation, of the music business as a whole, of an American in England, and of how one man confronts the celebrity machine that was just beginning to take hold.

Oh boy… I feel a list coming on! Look out next week for The Ten Greatest Rockumentaries of All Time! (Where should I put Dont Look Back?!)

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen