Looking back at “Don’t Look Back”

On Thursday evening Turner Classic Movies played a set of rock documentaries including the TCM premiere of D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back (1967). As cinéma vérité, the film captures Bob Dylan on tour in England in 1965, where he had already become a pop star.

It’s an entertaining film populated by intriguing characters, foremost among whom is Dylan himself, of course, but also Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman, Dylan’s then girlfriend, Joan Baez, Dylan’s friend Bob Neuwirth, the Animals’ Alan Price, Dylan wannabe Donovan — he turned up to touch the hem of Dylan’s garment — along with assorted British fans, journalists and promoters. The poet Allen Ginsberg can even be found in the background of the film’s famous opening scene of Dylan tossing off cue cards with words from the lyrics to “Subterranean Homesick Blues.”

The film must be the father of the line of rock documentaries that culminates in the classic rock “mockumentary” This is Spinal Tap. One watches Dylan’s manager — Albert Grossman — in action with morbid fascination. Early in the film he has a memorable encounter with a hotel manager looking for the person who is “in charge” of Dylan’s hotel room. The hotel had fielded complaints that the room was a little noisy. Grossman responds with a profane tirade (video below). We also see Grossman at work seeking to extract top pound from the BBC for an appearance by Dylan. Grossman looks like he got lost on his way to a future appearance in This is Spinal Tap.

The Coen brothers memorialized Grossman in Inside Llewyn Davis, their portrait of a talented musician seeking to make it in a tough business. A study in failure, it’s the other side of the coin presented by Don’t Look Back. The Coens’ Grossman character (“Bud Grossman”) is not impressed by Llewyn Davis. Davis plays him a moving rendition of “The Death of Queen Jane.” Grossman renders judgment: “I don’t see a lot of money here.”

The real Grossman played Colonel Parker to an impressive array of mostly folk artists. He provided a baldly commercial counterpoint to his clients’ idealistic personas.

Despite his unprepossessing appearance, Grossman was married to the beautiful Sally Grossman. Sally accompanied Grossman on the 1965 tour and must be the most beautiful woman in the film. I think her appearance is uncredited, however, as was her appearance on the cover of Dylan’s 1965 album Bringing It All Back Home. Sally was still married to Grossman at the time of his death in 1986. They had a beauty and the beast thing going.

Introducing Don’t Look Back on Thursday evening, TCM host Ben Mankiewicz advised viewers that the title derived from Satchel Paige’s adage: “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.” That strikes me as off-base, but there is authority for the proposition. Pennebaker is the film’s auteur and Pennebaker says that’s where the title came from. He also says that Dylan agrees.

I think it more likely that the the title derives from Dylan’s song “She Belongs to Me,” off Bringing It All Back Home. Dylan can be heard strumming the song, apparently rehearsing it, immediately after the film’s opening scene. The song begins: “She’s got everything she needs/She’s an artist, she don’t look back.” I wonder if that is Dylan reflecting on himself.

It is an enigmatic love song, or a love song about an enigmatic woman. It’s something of a love/hate song that has been covered by a lot of artists. You may recall Ricky Nelson’s version. Ricky gave a country twist to the song’s 12-bar blues structure (video below). Great line: “She can take the dark out of the nighttime/And paint the daytime black.”

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