>Bobby D May Just Be God

by jvaragona

I watched a good portion of “No Direction Home,” the new Scorcese directed documentary of Bob Dylan’s early years. The rest is on my DVR, so I’ll make a night of it. A lot of people don’t like Dylan, at least that’s what I’ve gathered. I assume it’s because of his voice, but you have to admit that it is unique. There is a passion in that voice and in his words. Joan Baez said it best, when she said something to the effect of she didn’t know what the words meant, but she liked the way it sounded. She studied them for meaning and then told Dylan what she thought they meant. His reply was, “That’s pretty fuckin’ good!” He didn’t even know what they meant a lot of the time, yet he was being called the spokesman of his generation. Crazy man.

Anyway, I suggest everyone try to get into some Dylan. He is good for you like prunes.

There are two other Dylan docs that are fairly well known, “Don’t Look Back” and “Eat the Document.” I wrote this paper about their history and differences.

Don’t Look Back Ma, I’m Only Eating:

the story of two 1960’s Bob Dylan rock docs

It is 2005, and Bob Dylan is still a hot commodity; granted, he isn’t what he was thirty and forty years ago, but to say that a musician made it through that time period of drugs, sex, and rock ‘n’ roll is quite a feat. He’s made it this far with over forty albums and still tours on a fairly consistent basis. Last year, he became a best selling author with his memoir “Chronicles, Volume 1.” This year, Martin Scorsese is producing and directing a documentary for PBS’ American Masters series entitled “No Direction Home,” which will cover Dylan’s first five years as a musician and include interviews with the man himself, who rarely agrees to interviews. Forty or so years ago, the mysterious Dylan exposed himself in two documentaries, “Don’t Look Back” and “Eat the Document,” or did he? Scorsese has already said of his own project, “It’s nonfiction—maybe. With Bob Dylan, you never know.”[1]
To put the two films in a historical context, “Don’t Look Back” was shot in London in 1965 by cinema verite pioneer D.A. Pennebaker. He was asked by Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman to make a film of the tour in England, which would be Dylan’s last acoustic tour. Pennebaker had very little knowledge of Dylan, but felt that he would be an important subject. Bobby Neuwirth, friend of Dylan and an assistant of sorts during his tours of the ‘60s, has suggested that Pennebaker’s work at the time was considered to be very different from everything else out there, like Dylan’s music, and that is why he was hired to do the film. The film, in turn reflects the music.[2] It is shot in classic black and white by Pennebaker, but he hesitates to say he directed it. “I hesitate to say I directed the film. It was more directed by those who were in it.”[3] That is a reflection of his cinema verite style, which is simply a fly-on-the-wall style that lets the film do the talking and negates any interaction from the filmmaker.
“Eat the Document” was shot in 1966 in London, also by D.A. Pennebaker. It covers a very historical tour in rock ‘n’ roll history, when Bob Dylan went electric. It turns out to be a very controversial happening, because some of Dylan’s fans could only accept him as a folk artist. Trying to figure out who directed this film is a bit more difficult. While some sources list Pennebaker as the director, it seems as if Dylan himself took the helm (the Internet Movie Database concurs with this) this time around. Some may have gotten things confused because Pennebaker was retained for his skills with the camera.
There are some common threads through “Don’t Look Back” and “Eat the Document,” but they are very different. Yet while both are significant films on their own, historically and artistically, together they can explain a lot about Bob Dylan at the time and more generally, the rock ‘n’ roll culture, which was still a toddler at the time.

“Don’t look back. Somebody may be gaining on you.”—Satchel Paige[4]

The title of this film points to the quickly evolving star that Dylan was becoming. He had four acoustic albums at this point and was about to release “Bringing It All Back Home,” his first electric album. He was being looked to as a spokesperson for his generation, a poet protesting all that is wrong, and seen as a god by some. As the film begins, we see him arrive at the airport in London, and the reactions mirror those for The Beatles when they hit the U.S. It is a bizarre reaction considering this man is a folk musician. His type were not know for playing huge venues, such as Royal Albert Hall, either. His friend Bob Neuwirth said it was the first time social issues were put into such a forum, and not in a blues club or a union hall.[5] This odd mixture of pop culture and social issues is not lost on the press, who constantly question Dylan whether or not he thinks his fans understand his messages.

Pennebaker uses many of the musician’s encounters with the press, which are unique because he is for the most part never sincere with them, constantly turning questions back on them. At one point, a young man from a college newspaper is interviewing Dylan and Bob insults him by basically calling him “middle class and stupid.”[6] That young man turns out to be Terry Ellis, who went on to co-found Chrysalis Records, so I am sure whatever Dylan said did not phase him. Ellis’s article that came from the encounter does speak to how Dylan was at the time.“This genius appeared at the City Hall last Thursday, the man who is said by his fans to ‘have the message’; the man who claims, paradoxically, ‘I have never tried to communicate to people. There isn’t any point, it is impossible to makeanyone understand what I think.’I had a long conversation with Dylan, during which I was never sure who wasdoing the interviewing, me, Dylan or Alan Price of the Animals. ELLIS: OK., it’s impossible for most people to understand but some may,and you must communicate to find out which they are. DYLAN: Do you think we have an adequate means of communication? ELLIS: No, but it’s the best we have and we must use it. DYLAN: What would we do if we couldn’t communicate? ELLIS: Oh, I’m sure … who’s doing the interview, me or you? PRICE: Well, you haven’t asked any questions yet.”[7]
Even Dylan’s cohorts got in on the antics, such as Price, who left The Animals (who had just covered Dylan’s “House of the Rising Sun”) to hang with Dylan. At one point Dylan asks him about the band, and Alan replies, “These things happen,” and looks despondent for the rest of the scene.
Bob Neuwirth, who originally met Dylan on the folk music circuit, was credited by D.A. Pennebaker for making some scenes filmable. Early in the film, we can notice his closeness with Dylan. One scene has them goofily snapping their fingers in sync with each other. The director said that Neuwirth would present such scenes for the cameras on a daily basis to give him material to work with. Speaking more generally of the material, Pennebaker said, “A lot of the film was just happenstance,”[8] which one would hope from a fly-on-the-wall documentary, but it does point to the editing as a strong point of the piece. It is also one of the more controversial aspects of the film, for Dylan fans and Dylan himself.
Pennebaker shot everything he saw for much of the tour. This makes Dylan look like an ass at times, which is a bit off-putting to those that view him as an intelligent poet that speaks to social issues. He still fits those characterizations, but in social situations, especially with the press, he seems cold. Towards the end of the film, sitting with a reporter for Time magazine, Dylan says, “You can’t print the truth,” to which he elaborates, “like a picture of a tramp vomiting. Yeah, and next to that a picture of Rockefeller.” I can understand how celebrities have a disdain for the media, but not how Dylan feels he must impart his wisdom upon others, and it is uncomfortable to watch him constantly do so. It was funny at first in the film, I will admit, but he progresses to that uncomfortable level. Was Pennebaker painting a true portrait? He claims that it bothered Dylan, because it showed too much of him. It may not have been the complete picture, but those aspects exist and should be shown.[9]
Many complain that Pennebaker could have done justice to Dylan’s music more by including entire songs, which he never does. He has said he did not want it to be a concert film because the music itself was really absorbing and it would detract from the true purpose, which was to see behind the music.[10] The director does a good job of that, considering a film like this had never been done before. The viewer can get a sense of what it was like to be in Dylan’s posse.
As far as the quality of sound in this production, I’d say Pennebaker did his best, considering his sound person was someone already in Dylan’s entourage. The performances maintain consistent levels most of the time, but fade at some points. Pennebaker stated that for the final performance of “Love Minus Zero/No Limit,” he ran up to a balcony seat to zoom out from the lonely, spotlit Dylan singing his tune. He gave the illusion of an acoustical echo by layering the song over itself by split seconds, something that we in the age of video take for granted because we can do that in split seconds, but back then was an arduous task with film.[11]
“Don’t Look Back” represents Dylan at that point in time well. It is in simple black and white and his music was stripped down to just a guitar and a harmonica, yet both seem so artistic and beautiful. We get the sense that he is growing tired of that style, even seeing him at one point admiring some electric guitars in a storefront window. His first electric album is about to be released in England, and we see Dylan and his friends, including Joan Baez, previewing tracks from the album in anticipation of it. His popularity is getting to his head, as we can see through his attitude to the press and others. It paints a clear picture of the infancy of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. If they did not plan this film to be made to coincide with the last time Dylan would be playing those songs in that way, it would be a brilliant coincidence, but something tells me they knew it would be some kind of historical document.

“‘You’ve got your film’—which he called ‘Pennebaker by Dylan’—‘now I want you to help me make my film, but this time there’s gonna be none of this artsy fartsy cinema verite shit. This is going to be a real movie.’”
—D.A. Pennebaker quoting Dylan[12]

“Don’t Look Back” would not be released until 1967. It went on to be considered one of the best rock documentaries ever made, but Bob Dylan did not think so. During the year following its filming, Dylan was already becoming a viable rock star, through his music and his lifestyle. Rumors of his rampant drug use were hitting the press, but he was proving them true through his odd twitchy behavior on stage. While he enjoyed playing with a band (The Band) a lot more, his moods as down as much as they were up. Two of his good friends died in April of 1966. Folk musician Paul Clayton committed suicide by electrocuting himself in the bathtub on April 6, and on April 30, Richard Farina, author of “Been Down So Long It Seems Like Up To Me,” died in a motorcycle accident on the way home from the launch party for his book.[13]

The ABC network commissioned an hour long documentary to be made by the Dylan camp for their series entitled “Stage 66.” This time around Dylan wanted complete control over the finished piece. Pennebaker was brought on as the man behind the camera again, but he was under the command of a rock star under the influence of coke, speed, and god knows what else.
“He had some kind of it, but no idea in the world how to get it. He’d occasionally say, ‘Shoot that, shoot some of this over here.’ That kind of direction. For instance, he would get rooms filled with strangers who appeared out of nowhere and get them all into the scene. I don’t know what he was smoking, but he was pretty far up in the air a lot of the time! It wasn’t bereft of ideas. It’s just that the ideas in his head…what we were going to get on film wouldn’t be that…I was never quite sure what I was meant to be doing.”[14]
One could argue that “Eat the Document,” which is the title of the film that was born from this madness, is a documentary based on Pennebaker’s version of events. He even compared the experience to making home movies, which he did not want to be in the business of doing.
Howard Alk, who was listed as a cinematographer (along with Pennebaker) on “Don’t Look Back,” took on a greater role with “Eat the Document.” He was assistant director to Dylan, in addition to assisting with cinematography and editing duties. Alk would also go on to help Dylan with the cinematic mess know as “Renaldo and Clara,” a four hour epic mixing a narrative and concert footage from Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue tour, which takes the “ideas” he had for “Eat the Document” eight miles higher. This only proves that whenever the musician dips into the realm of filmmaking, the end product is filled with as many riddles and characters as his songs; it just works a whole lot better with his music. This theory can also be applied to “Masked and Anonymous,” starring Dylan and co-written by him under the pseudonym Sergei Petrov.
“Eat the Document” begins with the title and a mechanical hum, which cuts to Dylan leaning into the table. He is laughing hysterically, but it also appears he is snorting a line of coke. The next shot is an obvious shot of someone snorting the powdery white off of his finger. It is a shocking beginning to the piece, but then again, the whole film is a bit of a trip itself, especially compared to “Don’t Look Back.” Right off the bat you can notice that the shots are shorter in duration and the camera is more frenetic, such as the MTV style of today. After the initial coke shots, Dylan asks a worker in the hotel he is at, “Have you ever heard of me?” It is disturbing to see the drugs and fame get to someone this fast, considering he first came on to the scene six years prior, but one must also consider this was a time of over-indulgence by not only the rock culture, but that generation in general. Bob Dylan was lucky enough to survive it all.
Our introduction to this embarking of Europe, mainly England, includes some odd images and audio. We see a blind man with an apocalyptic sandwich board sign stating “It is appointed unto men once to die” on one side, and “after death, the judgment” on the other. He is pacing by a parade of sorts with bagpipers and police demonstrating their dogs’ skills of biting limbs. Dylan is there looking on as well. That cuts to Dylan in a car saying, “I’m sorry for everything I’ve done. I hope to remedy it soon.” You begin to wonder what this cryptic nonsense all means, but you are probably thinking too hard, and should not be pondering it at all. This is all some kind of wonderful nightmare.
Almost to show a different Dylan, the way he deals with the press is about the same, but giving opposite messages. On the 1965 tour, they asked him about the messages of his songs, to which he replied that there were none or that he was not protesting anything. This time around he tells them, “All my songs are protest songs. All I do is protest.” A member of the press addresses his attitude with the question “Do you ever come off stage? Are you yourself at anytime?” It sounds like what Martin Scorsese is wondering now as he is working on his Bob Dylan documentary.
Strangely enough, when it comes to concert footage, Dylan does the same as Pennebaker, even though the “Don’t Look Back” director was criticized for cutting numbers short. The first song is “Tell Me Momma,” which defines the music we will hear throughout the film and the tour—loud and fast, at least when compared to folky, acoustic Dylan. Marlon Brando once quipped, “The two loudest things I’ve ever heard are a freight train going by, and Bob Dylan and The Band.”[15] The last time the English heard Dylan, he was that folky, acoustic musician, and not the rocker they were to witness this time. It was a shock to almost everyone. Dylan makes good use of the extreme reactions after shows, which range from “He may think it’s gimmicky, but I think it’s rubbish,” to “It’s a bloody disgrace,” to “He is better than Donovan…better than Elvis Presley.”
As we see the evolution of Dylan onscreen, he becomes more “rock” as does his entourage. No folksy Joan Baez around now. Johnny Cash makes an appearance coaching Bob through a duet of his “I Still Miss Someone.” If those two legends in our midst is not enough, we also get to see John Lennon with Dylan being driven around town in one of the more memorable and odd moments in the film. This scene especially points to some kind of inebriation, which Dylan apparently does not mind putting out there.
The editing reflects Bob Dylan at this point through its random cutting and anxious shots. As he performs, we see repeated shots of his former fans grimacing in disgust and sometimes even pauses the music track to hear them say things like, “I wish he’d left that group in America.” Here is a man repeating such criticism of himself, something so personal and insulting. He believed in his evolving state, and did not care what the press was saying, nor seem to care if he isolated some of his fan base, which is obvious here. He does detract from Pennebaker’s cinema verite by staging scenes such as one with him and Richard Manuel of The Band asking a boy how much it would cost to buy his girlfriend. At several points, questions are asked by the camera operator, such as to a hippie outside one of the shows like “What are you doing here?” and “Why did you come to see Bob Dylan?” The end of the film itself is not climactic with a performance like “Don’t Look Back,” but rather a casual song in a hotel room which Dylan ends by telling the camera operator, “Why don’t you move around or something, unless you’re comfortable in that chair.” The frame then freezes on Dylan mid sentence, and that is our end, nothing flashy, but then again, the ride up to this point was.
It is difficult to discuss the technical merits of this film because a good print of it does not exist, at least for now. The colors are washed out and grainy, but the audio does not seem as affected. There are times that it fades, a bit more than “Don’t Look Back,” but some of the numbers sound surprisingly good. The addition of color to the performance scenes do amazing things for the lighting, which create some interesting lens flares. Dylan still had Pennebaker shooting for him most of the time, so the visuals did not suffer, except for the color issues. There may never be an officially released version that is cleaned up for us to see. Pennebaker apparently did cut a two-hour version of the film, which he titled, “You Know Something Is Happening.”[16]
Did Bob Dylan succeed in making his own rock documentary? To a Dylan fanatic, it is a must see. I could see others getting disoriented from the editing and nonsensical shots. Possibly he intended to isolate his fans through another medium, and this was all planned. If he can be such a genius with his words, why not with film? Maybe this is just over people’s heads, or maybe this was made by a rock star under the influence. Either way, it is interesting to watch for its place in rock history. He knew we would eat whatever he gave us. The film did not even premiere until a one time only television broadcast in 1972, because ABC did not like the end product. It remains to be available as bootleg only, except for a very limited press on the Watchdog DVD label in 2003, which still was considered a bootleg, but it was the best quality available so far.

These are two very different documentaries of Bob Dylan, each involving D.A. Pennebaker to some extent. At the same time, they both do a great job of representing Bob during the time they were made, even though it was just a two-year period. He was a pop culture phenomenon evolving right before our eyes, and still continues to do so. “Don’t Look Back” was telling us he was moving full steam ahead away from the Dylan that sang “Mr. Tambourine Man,” and “Blowin’ In the Wind.” It had a classic look through its black and white, yet was like nothing else because of Pennebaker’s innovative shooting styles that most had not seen yet. Even his audio was experimental. Bob Dylan tried his own hand at it with “Eat the Document,” which isn’t too successful, but is watchable. It looks like he wanted to be even more avant-garde than Pennebaker, but it just looks a bit amateurish in comparison. To him, it was a hybrid documentary, taking the finer aspects of Pennebaker’s style and expanding on them. By 1966 though, Dylan was experimenting with his sound; some despised it, and others thought it was godlike, so why not go all out and see what other reactions you can get. It is typical of Bob Dylan and of a rock star that is letting the fame get to him, so maybe that’s what makes them enjoyable. All of this is null and void though, because we are dealing with Bob Dylan, and the speculation and theory will get us nowhere.

[1] “Music Reporter.” 20 Jan. 2005. The Hollywood Reporter.
[2] Commentary track from “Don’t Look Back” DVD by Bob Neuwirth.
[3] Commentary track from “Don’t Look Back” DVD by D.A. Pennebaker.
[4] Referred to by D.A. Pennebaker as his inspiration for the title of “Don’t Look Back” in his commentary on the DVD for the film.
[5] Commentary track from “Don’t Look Back” DVD by Bob Neuwirth.
[6] Well put by Roger Ebert in his 1968 review of the film.
[7] from reprinting of original article located at
[8] Commentary track from “Don’t Look Back” by D.A. Pennebaker.
[9] Commentary track from “Don’t Look Back” by D.A. Pennebaker.
[10] Commentary track from “Don’t Look Back” by D.A. Pennebaker.
[11] Commentary track from “Don’t Look Back” by D.A. Pennebaker.
[12] Clinton Heylin, Bob Dylan: Behind the Shades Revisited (New York: Harper Entertainment, 2003), pg. 252.
[13] paraphrased from Bob Dylan: Behind the Shades Revisited. pg. 251-252.
[14]Clinton Heylin, Bob Dylan: Behind the Shades Revisited (New York: Harper Entertainment, 2003), pg. 252.
[15] Clinton Heylin, Bob Dylan: Behind the Shades Revisited (New York: Harper Entertainment, 2003), pg. 245.
[16] mentioned in posting on