D.A. Pennebaker’s Bob Dylan documentary Don’t Look Back has been described for years in glowing terms such as “one of the most influential rock films ever made.”
But the movie it seems to have influenced most is This Is Spinal Tap, Rob Reiner’s legendary mock-documentary about a rock group whose egos far outweigh their talent. (There’s even a scene in the Dylan movie, where Dylan’s entourage wanders endlessly to find an exit door, that seems to be directly parodied in Spinal Tap.)
The ostensible reason for this movie’s being is to record the ups and downs of Dylan’s 1965 tour of England. But no matter what the setting is — a concert, a press interview, hanging out with friends — “Don’t Look Back” assumes the same two points of view: mere mortals arriving to worship at the feet of Bob Dylan, or Dylan sneering at fans who try to look for deeper meaning in his music.
Heaven knows that, from the ’60s “British invasion” on, pundits have spent too much time looking for subtext in pop music. But since Dylan’s enigmatic lyrics have always invited such analysis, it’s a bit pompous of Dylan to continually put down the fans who made his name.
The movie’s most famous scene is the confrontation between Dylan and Donovan, a ’60s singer best remembered as a Dylan wanna-be (remember his hit “Mellow Yellow”?). The movie takes little potshots at Donovan throughout, until Dylan meets The Great Pretender himself and sings a sneering version of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” to him.
The funny thing is, Donovan is remembered these days, if at all, as a one-hit wonder. If Dylan had it in for a famous peer such as Elvis Presley or The Beatles, it might make for some interesting drama. But for Dylan to use a major documentary to display his resentment about a minor-league imitator speaks volumes about the man’s ego.
For Bob Dylan buffs, Don’t Look Back is probably tantamount to a lovefest. But the non-converted will be left scratching their heads wondering why and how.