The freewheelin’ music documentary: D.A. Pennebaker looks back at Bob Dylan and Dont Look Back

How a star was born – and a new kind of filmmaking with him.

Leigh Singer
Updated:

It’s perhaps hard in this media(-ted) age of Snapchat, selfies and constant self-documentation/promotion to imagine just how groundbreaking D.A. Pennebaker’s behind-the-scenes portrait of Bob Dylan was at the time. Tailing the artist on his 1965 British tour, Pennebaker adapted the new technology and filmmaking aesthetic possibilities to largely eschew a straight-up “concert film” (those would come a few years later with his equally iconic Monterey Pop and Ziggy Stardust movies), and instead observe Dylan on the cusp of his tempestuous journey from earnest folk troubadour to fiery rock pioneer.

That it took Pennebaker two years to secure distribution from an industry unwilling to sanction such ‘nonprofessional’ work – handheld, jerky, non-narrative – is as instructive as it is to subsequently see how thoroughly Dont Look Back has influenced ‘rockumentaries’, from Gimme Shelter, In Bed with Madonna, Dig!, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster and numerous others, not to mention the dead-on spoof of Rob Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap.

And while Pennebaker and his longtime partner Chris Hegedus have continued this patient, unobtrusive yet hugely revealing style across one of the great bodies of American documentary work (Town Bloody Hall (1979), Depeche Mode 101 (1989), The War Room (1993)), this exclusive interview, conducted at the recent Sheffield Doc/Fest that featured a celebration of their work, shows how rightly proud – and still a little surprised – he continues to be of the film that, for his career, over 50 years on, is still bringing it all back home.

 

In the August 2016 issue of Sight & Sound

The S&S Interview: D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus

The early, groundbreaking films of D.A. Pennebaker, including his mid-60s Bob Dylan portrait Dont Look Back, are undisputed masterworks of American cinéma vérité, but following a creative slump in the mid-70s his career needed fresh inspiration. He found it with filmmaker Chris Hegedus, with whom he has gone on to create a formidable body of work documenting almost 40 years of political and cultural change. Interview by Eric Hynes.

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