Wednesday, 19 August 2015

No.39. Music on Film: DON'T LOOK BACK (1967) / MONTEREY POP (1968)


The renowned documentarian D.A. Pennebaker had the knack of ‘witnessing’ as he called it: capturing historic moments in modern pop culture on film. In 1965, he was invited to accompany Bob Dylan on his UK national tour and produced the excellent DON’T LOOK BACK - one of the great fly-on-the-wall documentaries as a result.

Whilst it opens with the celebrated cue-card ‘pop video’ of ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ (specially filmed for the movie), and features a powerful live version of ‘The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll’ it’s less of an archive of his performances on-stage and more fascinating for the ones he gives behind the scenes. DON’T LOOK BACK is a film about how a popular commercial artist deals with fame and the media.

Dylan lands in London with his entourage, including Joan Baez, Alan Price and his manager Albert Grossman and almost immediately is hit by the excruciating cut-glass accents of the old-fashioned British press and the equally cringe-worthy inanity of their questions. Asked if he is angry, he teases: “I’m not angry. I’m delightful!”  As the tour progresses, it’s engrossing to watch how Pennebaker selects Dylan scenes that alternate between playfulness and evasion to cope with the boring predictability of repetitive interviews. Baez too is equally reluctant to play the game. A relieved photographer tells her how hard he’s found it to track her down. “Good,” she replies, not entirely joking. “I’m just a guitar player”, Bob fobs off another writer, like a cat toying with a mouse.
The most entertaining and revealing of these interviews for me is an impromptu one back-stage with Terry Ellis, a science student rather than a professional journo (who would later go on to found the Chrysalis Record label). Dylan uses the other response tactic he employs, which is to engage by going on the attack somewhat, to turn the questions back on the interviewer. The hapless young man seems slightly confused about his role as he complains that these celebrities aren’t interested in him and that the winningly cheeky Price is “Knocking me”. Dylan continually questions his inappropriate self-pity about why Dylan should need to demonstrate a desire to be friends with him. Whilst it may come across as unequal bullying, it’s a sincere and sustained dialogue and probably gives the most insight into Dylan’s resentment of the intrusion and entitlement that the actual media seemed to expect.

Dylan pre-empts another press man before he can ask about the meaning of his songs by warning him: “I got nothing to say about these things I write. I just write ‘em”. There is already a clear frustration in him at being loaded down with a ‘figure-head of the revolution’ status in the late 1960s. Admittedly he did court this to some extent back home in flirting with various political organisations, but would not be tied into reflecting one fixed view or doctrine. This was not unusual as a rock musician. He would not be the first or the last celebrity to voice an opinion on society without committing to being any form of campaign leader. He was criticised a great deal for this stance, yet arguably his position in the interviews in DON’T LOOK BACK illustrates that an artist owes no-one an explanation, merely the quality of their work to justify them.

Later, there is an engrossing scene we enter part-way in, where Time magazine’s London arts correspondent Horace Freeland Judson is sheepishly receiving a more personally caustic barrage for questions that Dylan finds unfair. When Judson finally speaks, composing himself to utter “Do you care about what you sing?” this is like a red rag to a bull. “Do you ask the Beatles that question?” roars Dylan. He turns the focus relentlessly back on his questioner. It’s uncomfortable, and yet it is hard not to sympathise actually with Dylan. The monotony of the same quizzing even by august publications must be a drag. Judson complained afterwards about the ‘abuse’ Dylan heaped on him in this sequence; yet Dylan pre-judging how Judson’s article will turn out is only in a sense getting his version heard first, since he will have no control over the finished piece which will ultimately be an unanswered judgement by the magazine on him.

There are lighter moments to be enjoyed too, such as Price’s little comments, notably about Donovan. “He’s a better guitar player than you”, he informs Dylan brazenly. Indeed, part of the wicked fun of DON’T LOOK BACK is had at Donovan’s expense. He’s like a spectre haunting Dylan through the film, the implication being that he is a pretender copyist of Bob. A scene shows the two men finally meeting. Donovan plays him ‘To Sing for You’ and then Dylan unleashes ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’ (to establish his dominance possibly?).

Joan Baez fans also get to see her relaxing back-stage, performing a few of her songs in fine voice including the later-finished ‘Love Is Just a Four Letter Word’.

Anyone who’s curious about Albert Grossman, Dylan’s manager (and later writer of two hugely compelling if one-sided biographies of Elvis and John Lennon) will find some interesting scenes of him here. He looks like a Tory Chancellor of the Exchequer and demonstrates an impressive, albeit heavy-handed protection of Dylan when a hotel staff member warns of noise complaints. He easily clarifies his and his client’s status to the employee without kow-towing: “I am not in charge of Bob Dylan” and then loses his cool a little by sending the man away with insults: “You stoopid nut!” Later, he shows more shrewd and calm business negotiation in a two-hander with an agent associate where they play off the BBC against commercial TV’s Johnny Hamp for the highest bidder on a TV appearance.

The more compassionate side of Dylan is revealed in a couple of sequences. The first is where he fears for a young girl’s safety as she clings to their post-concert getaway car. Later in a lengthy section in Manchester, he angrily button-holes a sozzled young chap he suspects of throwing a bottle down from their window; the camera then captures him softly explaining to the guy that he was mad out of concern for passers-by.

Finally, the tour builds to his performance at the Royal Albert Hall. We see snippets of this during which he enjoys himself, cracking a rare smile with the mischievous: “I looked in the closet. There was Donovan”, followed by his evident pleasure at the whole experience as they drive away. “I feel like I’ve been through something…” He still has enough self-deprecating awareness not to ultimately buy into his perceived self-image too much: “Give the Anarchist a cigarette”, he quips.
At one point, Pennebaker’s Royal Albert Hall footage catches him in a beautiful shot: a small man with a big talent framed in a big spotlight. That sums up Bob Dylan in 1965 and a profound, superb film by one of the world’s great documentary-makers.


In the same year that D.A. Pennebaker released DON’T LOOK BACK, he filmed the Monterey Pop Festival in California, the movie of which contained enough famous performances to give it a legendary status afterwards.

It’s a fairly short film of only 79 minutes and whilst it keeps the off-stage crowd interview sound-bites to a minimum and edits down performances that don’t really work like The Animals’ tuneless cover of ‘Paint It Black’, there are stunning highlights and some songs left thankfully intact. Janis Joplin gives a blisteringly raw version of ‘Ball and Chain’ with Big Brother and the Holding Company; the Mamas and the Papas give solid renditions of ‘California Dreamin’ and ‘Got A Feelin’.

Three of the best artists on display though all focus on stringed instruments. Firstly, (not that I’m biased), the Who’s belligerent energy comes across well, showcasing in particular Keith Moon’s manic anarchic drumming and Pete Townsend smashing up his guitar as he did back then. Later, by way of response, Jimi Hendrix goes one better. After a virtuoso guitar demonstration in ‘Wild Thing’, during which he humps it against the speaker stack, he then famously lays it down and sets fire to it, squirting on lighter fluid for good measure and then smashing it by the neck.

The last twenty minutes of the concert though is dominated by one continuous piece of incredible sitar work by Ravi Shankar backed by his band. Pennebaker cuts away often to show how transfixed the audience is of all ages by his phenomenal style and transcendent flights, his fingers becoming a blur of fretwork. Hendrix and the Monkees’ Micky Dolenz are picked out amongst the fans in attendance for this. Shankar’s joy at playing is infectious and the roar at the end is sensational.
 Later, amongst other films, Pennebaker would be a witness to the ground-breaking campaign strategy that brought Bill Clinton his presidential victory in the superb fly-on-the-wall THE WAR ROOM.

MONTEREY POP has since become available on a DVD with two hours of extra band footage.
This original 1968 cut is a short but valuable archive of a vital period in youth culture and music.

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