Rock Docs, the documentary series featuring prolific music icons, has come to University of California, Santa Barbara courtesy of the Carsey-Wolf Center, Film and Media Studies, the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies of Music, and KCSB radio station. “Don’t Look Back,” the first film of the series, chronicles Bob Dylan’s 1965 London tour and was shown at UCSB’s Pollock Theater Tuesday, Jan. 14.
This rock documentary is the first of its style, featuring extended close-up shots, views from backstage, and no narration. This style made the documentary ever more inclusive, and the firsthand shots of Dylan getting ready for concerts backstage or punching out the lyrics to his songs on a typewriter makes the viewer feel as if they are right alongside Dylan for his ’65 tour.
The black and white film takes the viewer deep into the facets of Dylan’s life as an international, albeit often reluctant, counterculture and rock icon. The film captures everything—from Dylan’s arrival in London to a barrage of crazed fans to arguments with hotel neighbors to his quiet, methodical songwriting process, often accompanied by friend and lover, folk singer Joan Baez.
The trips backstage are especially interesting, including one scene in which Dylan, visible in the very background of the shot, starts singing “The Times They Are A’-Changin’,” only into a muted mic. The camera captures three frenzied stage hands trying to find which cord had become unplugged. Their success in fixing the mic was met with Dylan’s booming chorus and thunderous applause from the audience. Candid moments like these make the documentary shine, and allows the viewer to feel as if they were there backstage with Dylan’s crew in 1965.
The documentary highlights Dylan’s laid-back personality as well as his reluctance at being thrust to the head of the counterculture revolution of the 1960s. Arguably his most iconic song, “The Times They Are A’-Changin’,” addresses humanitarian ideas that were prominent at the time and was a major contributor to his rise to fame. A reporter in the film describes Dylan as “not so much singing as sermonizing.” Indeed, many of Dylan’s songs feature slightly religious lyrics, but when asked about his religion, Dylan said, “I don’t see anything to believe in.”
Dylan’s impatience with reporters is also evident, as if he thought they could never begin to understand his reason for doing anything. “I just go out there and sing. I don’t try to get anybody to listen,” Dylan tells a Time magazine reporter who attempts an interview. “I don’t need Time magazine. I got nothing to say about the things I write. You would just hear words, you would never really understand me.” Dylan’s bewilderment at his sudden stardom is further apparent upon his arrival in London, as a reporter asks why he thought he was so much bigger now, and bushy-haired, cigarette-wielding Dylan casually replies with, “I have no idea. I’m just doing the same thing I did before.”
Don’t assume Bob Dylan is all nonchalance and hostility, however. Many scenes show Dylan kicking back with friends, writing songs while Baez sings ornately in the background, and interacting jovially with adoring fans. One scene shows a young teenage girl surrounded by her giggling friends as she waits outside Dylan’s hotel. She looks upward at his window, hoping she would happen to see Dylan’s shadow cross her field of vision. While she is looking up, she waves, electrified, as she sees her idol pass beyond the windowpane. Dylan must have become aware of the girls’ presence, because the next scene shows them in his room, and Dylan conversing with them as easily as if they were life-long friends. The unconcealed joy on the girl’s face garners appreciation for Dylan’s kindness to his fans, even if his critical attitude toward the press is less than subtle.
“Don’t Look Back” successfully chronicles the technical side of Dylan’s 1965 London tour, and it delves into the singer-songwriter’s attitudes toward his music, his fans, and his beliefs. The impact Bob Dylan had on not only America, but also on the rest of the world and the rock industry in general, will live on in popular culture for a long time, and the humanitarian lyrics in many of his songs will continue to inspire countercultural ideals for generations to come.
Pollock Theater will feature all of the Rock Docs film series in January, including documentaries about Bob Marley on Jan. 21, Anvil on Jan. 28, and the Dixie Chicks on Jan. 29, all at 7 p.m.