D.A. Pennebaker, Bob Dylan, and the Birth of the Modern Rock-Doc

The director on how Don’t Look Back created the template for its subgenre.

In the sub-genre of music documentaries, all roads would seem to lead to D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back, which followed then-burgeoning icon Bob Dylan on a three-week tour of England in 1965, the same year he controversially “went electric,” trading in his folk roots for a more rock ’n’ roll sound. Pennebaker in Don’t Look Now championed many elements we consider no-brainers in the doc world nowadays, most especially his “direct cinema” approach of remaining a fly on the wall, that is, just in the room, capturing whatever happens and not striving for a certain point or thought. The result of this approach was a very natural and intimate portrait of a very enigmatic persona that not only established a template for rock-docs, but also solidified the mystique of Dylan.

It’s been half a century since Don’t Look Back was released and in that time appreciation for it has only grown as each generation new Dylan fans discover this most important document. For me personally, the first time I saw it was the first time I was able to think of Dylan as a person and not just a cultural figure. His eccentricities, his quirks, his weirdness – these things endear you to him like his music can’t, they humanize the soul behind the voice, take the poet out of the canon and put him on the sidewalk with the rest of us weirdos, thus also simultaneously further elevating him, in my estimation at least, for his ability to transcend normalcy with something as simple as his words.

Editor Leigh Singer interviewed Pennebaker about the making of Don’t Look Back, and the director went in-depth about some of the aspects of his process that led to such a unique style and lasting effect, among them his vérité style, as well as allowing the film to reflect its subject rather than framing it, and a few technical aspects like adapting the camera to the situation – which in Pennebaker’s case was constantly following a jet-setting star on his travels through various towns, hotels and venues – filming on real locations instead of studios or other artificial, neutral environments, and borrowing cinematic techniques like dramatic close-ups and long holds to augment character.

Singer’s resulting video, entitled “The Freewheelin’ Music Documentary,” is a must-see for Dylan fans, documentary fans, history fans, music fans, and really anyone who likes a good story and a great film. Highest recommendation of the week.