The best rock movie after A Hard Day’s Night, Don’t Look Back is a documentary of Bob Dylan’s tumultuous 1965 tour of Britain. The 1967 film, being shown on this day by Cinemax to celebrate Dylan’s 50th birthday, can now be seen in a new context: as an inspiration for Madonna’s similarly frank Truth or Dare. Young people who saw the sunken, querulous Dylan mumble incoherently at the most recent Grammys show may not believe it, but there was a time — the mid- to late ’60s — when Dylan was the Madonna of his day: ferociously intelligent, witheringly sarcastic, intent on exposing the sham of pop stardom.
Director D.A. Pennebaker captured all this in Don’t Look Back. Shot in grainy black and white, the movie follows Dylan’s arrival in London, his press interviews, his backstage chats with celebrities from Joan Baez to the Animals’ Alan Price (who enjoys a gin and tonic by drinking from a quart of gin in his right hand and a quart of tonic in his left). There’s also a fair amount of concert footage of Dylan, alone onstage with his guitar and harmonica, rasping out songs such as ”The Times They Are A-Changin”’ and ”It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.”
But that’s not what people remember about this film. What they remember are the scenes of a bemused Dylan reading British newspapers informing him that his new chief competitor is Donovan (”Who is this Donovan?” he mutters), and of a belligerent Dylan jousting with a Time magazine reporter. ”Do you care about what you sing?” Dylan is asked. ”How can you ask me that?” the singer brays. ”Do you ask the Beatles that?” What a brat. There’s also a great, squirmy scene in which Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman, finagles huge fees from a British music-hall owner on the strength of his gloriously vulgar, all-American aggressiveness.
Midway through, the film drags a little — one too many snide put-downs from the star, one too many scenes suffocated with smug hangers-on. Pennebaker has said that ”Dylan is sort of acting throughout the film,” but that’s okay: His intense self-consciousness resulted in a movie that probably gets closer to the complicated truth of rock stardom than anything before or since. A