By David D'Arcy
In Don't Look Back (1967), the images that seem to stay with you are of Bob Dylan on stage during a British tour, standing alone, spot-lit, singing with a guitar and a harmonica strapped around his neck, in front of sell-out crowd after sell-out crowd, with a composure that you find only with the most self-assured performers. It was 1965, and Dylan, all of 24, looked a lot younger.
Here we see Dylan, a self-invented Dylan, re-invent himself day by day in the glow of youthful creativity. As he stumbles through the tour - unscripted is the understatement here - Dylan's self-invention is indeed a crude process, but no less watchable for its roughness as D.A. Pennebaker films it step by step, song by song.
But there's another scene that a lot of us who think we know Don't Look Back probably won't remember. Dylan's manager (and one of the film's enablers), Albert Grossman, is plotting with a British booking agent to wring an extra hundred pounds out of a few already booked appearances. Pennebaker records enough of the finagling to show the show business behind the Bob Dylan who seems pure onstage.
Of course, we all know that the entertainment business lives off agents who can scratch out an extra ten percent. But do agents and their clients really want us to see how folk music sausage is made? Pennebaker makes sure that we don't miss it.
Yet everyone being watched by Pennebaker's camera in Don't Look Back seems unfazed by the lens that's watching the whole time - it's not just because the tour was fueled in part by hashish. And here you can see what makes D.A. Pennebaker unique. He has the confidence, the trust of his subjects, which gets him the free access which few entertainers and even fewer public figures will grant these days. The result is that the subject tells a story or, more precisely, is the story, whether it's Dylan, or James Carville in The War Room (1993) or Norman Mailer in Town Bloody Hall (1979) or Carol Burnett in Moon over Broadway (1997).
Pennebaker is often called, almost automatically, a "fly on the wall" filmmaker, because he's so present that you stop noticing him. Like most clichés, this one misses the point. This "fly on the wall" could just as easily be called the "fly in the soup," except this fly is there by mutual agreement, not by accident. He just makes sure that you don't see him in the final product, but you see what he sees.
Any documentary is far more complex than the advantage of unimpeded access that Pennebaker demands as a prerequisite. But that access always gives Pennebaker and his team (led by wife/partner Chris Hegedus) a head start. It also gives Pennebaker's films that special feel of the real story told from inside, or from behind the scenes of a performance or a political event. Note that in Pennebaker's case, behind the scenes never involves hidden cameras or ambushes.
I'll let others argue whether Pennebaker's uncanny skill at getting inside his subjects is at the core of this filmmaker's legacy, or whether that legacy is the unscripted verité style that Pennebaker pioneered. Bear in mind that this is not the later verité style of Fred Wiseman's great marathons. Watch a Pennebaker film now, and you'll see that the work is as much in the editing as it is in the observing.
And any young filmmaker would do well to watch Pennebaker's documentaries, if only to understand how you can reach dramatic effects not just by artful editing but also by just letting the camera roll. In Monterey Pop (1968), which Pennebaker shot with a team of peers behind the camera, your eye stays with Jimi Hendrix on shots that go on for what seems like an eternity. Here's one performer who doesn't need much editing, and a filmmaker who knows how to shoot in service of a performance.
Thanks to Monterey Pop, Pennebaker's influence is everywhere, whether today's music video slapdash directors know that or not. Nor should his role as an archivist or preservationist be neglected. Our memories of the young Bob Dylan are vivid, largely thanks to Don't Look Back. And the same can be said of Jimi Hendrix, thanks to Monterey Pop.
John Hartford, the songwriter and performer, never had the broad stardom of Dylan or Hendrix and probably never will. But we'll remember him as his own era's Will Rogers in Down from the Mountain, Pennebaker's 2000 doc of the Nashville concert performed by musicians who recorded the soundtrack of the Coen Brothers' Mississippi odyssey, O Brother, Where Art Thou? Hartford's irresistible warmth is all the warmer here since he's fighting cancer while he's telling all the jokes that are making you laugh. He died just as the film was released, and we're richer because Pennebaker put so much of him in front of us.
Another thing you learn from that film is that you don't need to really like country music to admire the people who make it in Down from the Mountain although it's hard to come out of that film not loving the music you just heard.
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