Rockin’ in the Film World #19: Bob Dylan in DON’T LOOK BACK (Leacock Pennebaker Films 1967)

“…some people say that I am a poet… ” 

– Bob Dylan, in the liner notes from the 1965 LP “Bringing It All Back Home”

Bob Dylan has been put under the media microscope, bisected, dissected, and trisected for the past six decades, with everyone and their mother trying to interpret the essence behind the enigma. Documentarian D.A. Pennebaker doesn’t go that route in DON”T LOOK BACK; instead, his cinema verite, free form style adheres to the old adage “show, don’t tell”, as he and his camera crew follow the troubadour on his 1965 tour of Great Britain, culminating in his historic set at the Royal Albert Hall. This would be Dylan’s final tour as a solo performer with guitar and harmonica – the album “Bringing It All Back Home” would soon be released, featuring electric and acoustic sides, and later that year he’d plug in with his band and shock the hell out of the crowd at the Newport Folk Festival, who booed him mercilessly and accused him of selling out.

Pennebaker, who was later responsible for the seminal rock docs MONTEREY POP and ZIGGY STARDUST & THE SPIDER FROM MARS, opens his film with the shape of things to come, a pre-MTV style video of Dylan’s electric “Subterranean Homesick Blues” (which was already beginning to climb the pop charts). We then go behind the scenes to get a glimpse of the man called variously a poet, folk singer, anarchist, and voice of a generation. Dylan pokes holes at the pretentiousness of the journalists and interviewers on his trail; one wonders where the put-on ends and the truth begins. He’s accompanied by fellow folkie and then-lover Joan Baez, though the couple were in the midst of breaking up at the time, for while Joan was a true believer in causes, Dylan scoffed at such matters, and admits he considers himself “an entertainer”, not a social justice warrior. (He even played with these various interpretations of himself in Sam Peckinpah’s PAT GARRETT & BILLY THE KID , as his character Alias is asked, “Alias what?”. His response: “Alias anything you please”).

Many 60’s luminaries besides Baez appear in the film, including Beat poet Allen Ginsberg (who appears in the “Subterranean Homesick Blues” proto-video), Alan Price of The Animals, Marianne Faithful, and notably Scottish singer Donovan, whose early career was so obviously modeled after Dylan they could be twins! When they finally meet at a hotel room party, Donovan serenades Bob with the tune “To Sing For You”, after which Dylan tops him with a rendition of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”, Donovan obviously mesmerized by his idol.

And yes, there’s plenty of music in the movie; Dylan croons “All I Really Want To Do”, “The Times They Are A-Changing”, “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”, Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”, “Don’t Think Twice (It’s Alright)”, “It’s All Right, Ma, I’m Only Bleeding”, and others, both on-and-off stage. Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman is a ubiquitous presence, negotiating TV contracts, and proving what Bob’s been saying all along – he’s just an entertainer, not a standard-bearer for any movement. DON’T LOOK BACK allows Bob Dylan to show himself behind the masks, a portrait of a young artist who’s constantly changed and evolved over the years. It’s probably the most honest picture of Dylan we’ll ever get to see, and if you’re a Dylan fanatic like myself, you don’t want to miss it.

“Definition destroys. Besides, nothing’s definite in this world” 

– Bob Dylan, in a 1976 interview with TV GUIDE

More “Rockin’ in the Film World”:



Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door: PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID (MGM 1973)

(PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID airs tonight at 11:45 EST on TCM. Do yourselves a favor… watch it!)

PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID was director Sam Peckinpah’s final Western, and as usual it’s about more than just the Old West. It’s about the new breed vs the old establishment, about the maverick auteur vs the old studio guard, and about his never-ending battle to make his films his way. The fact that there are six, count ’em, SIX different editors credited tells you what MGM honcho James Aubrey thought of that idea! They butchered over 20 minutes out of the movie, which then proceeded to tank at the box office. Fortunately for us, PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID has been restored to its full glory, and we can enjoy Peckinpah’s original artistic vision.

I’m not going to try to make excuses for Peckinpah; he was a legitimate pain in the ass, a chronic alcoholic and drug abuser with manic mood swings and a violent temper. A real reprobate. But damn, he made some of the best films of the 60’s and 70’s! His takes on the western and crime genres were ultra-violent lyrical tone poems, influencing an entire generation of filmmakers who tried to copy his style, but rarely succeeded. Take a look at virtually any action-packed movie made in the last fifty years, at directors from Scorsese to Tarantino, and you’ll see the Peckinpah influence. Sam Peckinpah may have been a pain in the ass, but the man was an artist of the first order.

PAT GARRETT & BILLY THE KID concerns the familiar tale of two old friends, one an outlaw, the other now a lawman, and their final confrontation. The two leads are veteran James Coburn as Garrett and relative newcomer Kris Kristofferson, better known at the time as a singer/songwriter. Garrett has been hired by the powers that be in Lincoln County, New Mexico to rid the territory of Billy and his gang. The pair had ridden together as outlaws, and been on opposite sides before (Billy: “Wasn’t long ago I was the law, riding with Chisum. Pat was an outlaw. The law’s a funny thing.”). Garrett doesn’t want to kill Billy, but knows in his heart that’s exactly what it’s going to take.

Cinematographer John Coquillon got his start working on AIP horrors (WITCHFINDER GENERAL, THE OBLONG BOX ), and was a favorite of Peckinpah. There are marvelous location shots of the rugged Durango, Mexico scenery, notably the reflective river. A standout comes when Billy kills his religious fanatic jailer (a scary R.G. Armstrong), and at Billy’s capture, his arms stretched out like Christ on the Cross when he gives up. Coquillon and Peckinpah worked together on the director’s seminal STRAW DOGS, and later on CROSS OF IRON and THE OSTERMAN WEEKEND. They make a great duo, each man enhancing the other’s artistic vision.

The plaintive score, as you may already know, is by Bob Dylan, who also has a role as Alias, an enigmatic figure to say the least (Pat: “Who are you?” Alias: “That is a good question”). Dylan may not be an Olivier or DeNiro, but he’s just right in this role, saving Billy by throwing his knife at just the right moment, being intimidated by Garrett, and pretty much just being Dylan. The hit song “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” is featured on the soundtrack, which was released as his 12th album, and I’m sure you Dylan fans already own it!

The movie is stocked with some of Hollywood’s best character actors, all of whom get their chance to shine. Slim Pickens and Katy Jurado play a pair of lawmen (lawpersons??) aiding Pat, and Pickens’ death scene is played out to the aforementioned Dylan hit. Jack Elam is Alamosa Bill, who tracks Billy down and dies in a gun duel. Good Lord, there’s Luke Askew, John Beck, Richard Bright, Matt Clark, Elisha Cook Jr , singer Rita Coolidge, Jack Dodson, Gene Evans , Emilio Fernandez, Paul Fix Richard Jaeckel , L.Q. Jones, Jason Robards Charlie Martin Smith , Harry Dean Stanton, Barry Sullivan , Dub Taylor, Chill Wills, a veritable Who’s Who of Hollywood Familiar Faces!

The final, fatal killing of Billy the Kid is haunting for both its beauty and its ugliness. That pretty much sums up the best of Sam Peckinpah’s work, the dichotomy of beauty and the grotesque, the proud and the profane, walking hand in hand through a random, chaotic world. PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID was Peckinpah’s final word on the Western genre, and I’m glad it’s been restored to its original form, so future generations can study the cinematic artwork of this difficult, self-destructive, brilliant genius.

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