From the opening guitar strum of 'Subterranean Homesick Blues' and the cue-card intro, in 1965 Dont Look Back represented the first attempt to capture Bob Dylan in a feature length film. But what does capturing a nascent icon of the 20th century entail?

The original theatrical poster. Note the lack of apostrophe in 'Dont'. 

There's something unknowable about Bob Dylan, the person. Even when he's laying it all out there in his poetic and evocative lyrics, there's a sense of distance between listener and artist. An intellectual wall of enigmas but one with endless questions that he demands you think about. For this writer at least, there's a love for what Dylan represents in an age of accepted public knowledge of a performer, whether it's a deliberate persona or not. Social media may have many benefits, but the unintentional deconstruction of an artist is not one of them.

 But was Dylan himself a persona?

D.A Pennebaker attempted to get close to Dylan in 1965 during what would be his final full acoustic tour before going - controversially at the time - electric. Pennebaker didn't select Dylan because he was a celebrity - they met in a bar in New York's trendy Village area and Dylan pitched him the idea that ended up becoming the iconic cue-card opening to the movie - instead he was chosen by Dylan's manager Albert Grossman to capture his English tour and the idea of being on the road with a group of musicians really appealed. The counterculture of the '60s was moving past that initial blast of The Beatles, and Bob Dylan was speaking to the youth in a different way. The dream of free love and respect was starting to peel away and reveal a murky underbelly. Dylan chronicled this change in a subtle way, making political, civil, and social points - often speaking of racial and sexual tensions. Dylan himself would be labelled an anarchist in the press, as documented in the film.



The stylistic choices made in the way Pennebaker captures his imagery continues to influence how documentaries are photographed today. The whirling of 16mm cameras is heard throughout and the choice to shoot in Academy ratio, in black and white and that particular film-stock, place it in its time. But it's very contemporary in feel, with the hand-held movement and fly on the wall approach taken and used by countless other works since.

Indeed, this and the Maysles brothers Gimme Shelter - their chronicle of The Rolling Stones notorious gig at Altamont - are two of the most influential documentaries ever made. It could easily be argued, with its lack of on screen identification of many of the faces who blast past the screen - a dejected Joan Baez, Allan Ginsberg, Marianne Faithfull and memorably Donovan, who is playfully taunted by Dylan at his own game with a song contest - that Dont Look Back isn't really a documentary at all. Pennebaker and his team saw themselves as capturing cinema verite. A reality of sorts.

He had started with this then-revolutionary mixture of documentary and experimental cinema by filming a five-minute short titled Daybreak Express in New York during 1953. This film depicted a Third Avenue subway station due to be demolished. 

From gig-to-gig, Dylan begins as with light hearted conversations and gleeful jokes with his colleagues. He's playful and friendly with fans. Later on though he gives an audience to a couple of journalists and turns the tables back at them. Their attempts to throw philosophical constructs back at him are gamely batted away by Dylan and turned onto the writers themselves. He makes them question their own judgement calls. The second of these, where he dismisses Time Magazine as a whole and claims that "If I want to find out anything, I'm not gonna read Time Magazine, I'm not gonna read Newsweek, I'm not gonna read any of these magazines, I mean cause they just got too much to lose by printing the truth. You know that." It's a breathtaking dismissal of an assumed manifesto and Dylan is simultaneously deflecting questions away from his own art and making the reporter look at their own moral obligation to the reader. Whether Dylan actually believes that Time or Newsweek are responsible for printing propaganda is unclear, it's all smoke and mirrors to him.


The film initially struggled to get released upon completion. It was a hard sell at the time, certainly more than a straight performance piece would have been - there are mere snippets of Dylan's sets, some perfunctory and agitated, others electrifying- and in the end it was the visual aesthetics that got it a distributor in 1967, via its resemblance to the pornographic movie's grainy trademark. It was initially released by a previous investor in said films.



There's no winning from an attempt to unwrap Dylan and de-code the icon. It's all performance, even when he's off stage. Even when he's berating journalists from asking obvious questions and tackling philosophical points. Pennebaker was wise enough to show this and would go on to a long and prosperous career that would include chronicling The Monterey Pop Festival the same year and capturing various musical acts including Depeche Mode, John Lennon and David Bowie. But for Bob Dylan, everything he wants to say is in his music. All of it. Pennebaker's Dont Look Back photographs this moment in time and is a freeze-frame of a movement absorbed by history. A man who would never again show the world so much of himself in a film.