D.A. Pennebaker on 50 Years of Bob Dylan: Dont Look Back, Part II

When it came to the final edit of D.A. Pennebaker's groundbreaking 1967 documentary Bob Dylan: Dont Look Back, everything was destined to fit exactly how it fit. "It wanted to happen," says Pennebaker. "When you think about films, some of them want to happen, and some of them aren’t too sure."

Dont Look Back is as sure as it gets, as the 90-year-old director and I discussed in Part I of our extensive interview, Dont Look Back (apostrophe very deliberately missing; more on that later), just released in a stunning 50th anniversary director-approved Blu-ray edition by The Criterion Collection, set the bar for rock and pop-culture documentaries, a style that’s still very much followed today.

In Part I, D.A. and I discussed how he gained Dylan’s trust during that legendary 1965 British tour, the way he predicted the selfie culture, and why he had to get on his back to shoot certain live performances, Here in Part II, the director shares his thoughts on surround sound when it comes to film soundtracks, that aforementioned missing apostrophe, and the origin of the film’s legendary opening cue-card sequence.

Mike Mettler: Let’s talk about the beginning of the film. You don’t have any of those cue cards left over from the “Subterranean Homesick Blues” shoot, do you?

D.A. Pennebaker: I don’t have any of them now. They got blown all over London, when we tried to do it on the roof. There was a big wind.

Basically, it was an idea that Dylan had in a bar one night, and I thought it was a terrific idea. So we brought along all of those sharp cardboards. (chuckles) Joan Baez wrote out some of them; Donovan did a ton of them. He was a pretty good drawer, actually.

Mettler: Was there any kind of playback of the song while you shot it?

Pennebaker: When we shot it, we played it on a little Nagra [tape recorder] that we had sitting on the ground. When we were doing it, people were just giddy drunk, I guess. (chuckles)

Mettler: We have three different versions of the “Subterranean” clip on the Blu-ray.

Pennebaker: We tried one in the garden, and the cops came and threw us out. Then we decided to do it in the back alley, where there were no cops. For some reason, everybody got dressed up the next day, and we tried to do one up on the roof. And that’s when the wind blew all of the cards away, so I don’t think we ever got through it. Nobody really thought anything about it. I almost didn’t even put it in the film until it was almost released.

Mettler: Once you realized you were using it, was it always going at the beginning of the film?

Pennebaker: At first, I had him at the beginning saying, “You start off standing.” He was sort of saying it to himself in the dressing room before a concert. I thought that was a good place to start. When I was looking at the thing, we had a pretty long print of it made, and I thought, “That’s not going to work, because nobody knows who the hell he is. I’ve gotta get him onstage somehow.” But I remember the stuff we had shot, so I pulled it out, and I think we used everything. We didn’t edit anything, and just put it at the head of the film. It just seemed right. And then we used it later for the trailer.

Mettler: It’s perfect. And it’s something you can go back and watch and never get tired of seeing.

Pennebaker: That’s right. It was so interesting, because it told you everything you needed to know about Dylan before you watched the movie.

Mettler: Another thing you and Bob Neuwith say in your joint interview is that this tour was essentially the first time that a man with just his voice, an acoustic guitar, and a harmonica onstage enraptured an entire room of people to that degree. It hadn’t really been done at that level before.

Pennebaker: Right — and in a non-stilted way. He was just up there like he’d walked off the street and onto the stage. He had the quality of being memorable.

Mettler: Do you have a particular favorite song of his?

Pennebaker: I like a lot of the songs. “Don’t Think Twice [It’s All Right]” is one. We’re using one of them in a film we’re doing now, one of the songs he did at Big Pink with The Band — “I Shall Be Released.” It’s one of my favorite songs, the version that Bob sings. [That version was recorded in the Fall of 1967 in Woodstock, and was eventually released officially on The Bootleg Series Volumes 1–3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961–1991.]

Mettler: When was the last time you and Bob had a conversation?

Pennebaker: Not recently, but we talk sometime. We’re still partners. I haven’t had a talk with him for maybe 7 or 8 years, but we do talk once in a while. We don’t live in the same world.

Mettler: Did he ever express any of his impressions of Dont Look Back directly to you?

Pennebaker: No. At once point, he wanted to take out some of the drunken party scenes, and I persuaded him that would be hard to do. (chuckles heartily) I would be subject to worldwide despair, so he gave up on that.

Mettler: The audio quality of the film is quite good, even though you had to catch as catch can. For this Blu-ray version, you went back to the quarter-inch magnetic masters, right?

Pennebaker: Yeah, yeah. It took better equipment to do it. A friend of Dylan’s was doing the sound most of the time [Jones Alk, then wife of filmmaker and Dylan associate Howard Alk, who was also present]. I had a guy I brought with me to do the concerts [Bob Van Dyke], but he wasn’t always wandering around with me, but Jones was there. And Jones was terrific. You never see her with a mike or see her taping, because she was so sly and so good at it. That was a break for me, because I didn’t even know her before the trip.

Mettler: There’s one extra audioclip interview where Dylan says that [his manager] Albert Grossman told him what the film was basically going to be, and that he had the trust that you could get it right.

Pennebaker: In the beginning, I think Albert had other ideas about what to do with whatever film we did. I don’t think he thought we’d be making a feature film out of it. But when he saw the poster, he changed. Then the film was fine.

Mettler: We have so many broad sonic choices now. How did you handle constructing the movie’s soundtrack at the time?

Pennebaker: Surround sound didn’t exist at that time, of course, and I was thinking about what to do to get this in the theater, because most of the theaters weren’t even set up right. The speakers didn’t work very well, so I just went for what I call “car stereo” — just left–right.

I had to mix it myself in New York, because there were no studios that could mix stereo. It was very early on in the process of making films, so we took what we could get. But at one point, about a year after it had been released, somebody said they were about to make a 4- or 5-track stereo mix of the film, and they’d do a reel for us to see what we’d think. I was interested to see how it sounded. In their studio, it sounded great.

We sent the reel down to a place where the film was playing, and the guy called up and said, “Take this out of here. I don’t want to hear it again, because the audience is revolting!” They had gotten so used to the other sound that when you put in all this “fancy” stuff, they hated it! I don’t know where that thread [mix] is, but it’s hidden away somewhere.

Mettler: And when quad came in, a lot of people had a hard time handling it.

Pennebaker: I know. I think it got too complicated and lost some of the general uncertainty that good music should always have. You should wonder what the next note or sound will be. It should take you by surprise a little bit. When it gets too technically proficient, it loses that for me.

Mettler: And now, a language question. We don’t see the apostrophe in the word Dont in the title. That was deliberate, right?

Pennebaker: We got rid of it. It just seemed like an interesting thing. In England, they leave it out a lot, so I thought, “Why not here?” I just liked the idea of not having. If I did it today, I might have left it in; I don’t know.

Mettler: Did you get many comments about it?

Pennebaker: The New York Times used to not run it that way. Other people — little by little, it’s sort of became standardized. I didn’t have any point in doing it; I just did.

Mettler: Did you have a sense of where you were headed after you filmed Dont Look Back and Monterey Pop?

Pennebaker: I thought we — well, we had just started. We were working with Life magazine, and then quit in order to film what we were filming — the Johnny Come Latelys, and whatever we felt we could get away with. We knew we weren’t going to be able to sell it or get anybody to watch it, particularly, but we still did it.

But when I did the Dylan film, suddenly, there was a big audience waiting for it. And that changed what we were trying to do, but it didn’t help us any, because we couldn’t get any distribution, and we had to distribute both that and Monterey ourselves. We couldn’t find anybody to take the film, because it wasn’t like the kind of films they [the distributors] were used to doing. They didn’t want to change their ways. They were older, and this was “hippie sh--” to them. They didn’t want to get into it.

Mettler: Fifty years from now, in 2065, when we’re probably all gone from this earth, how do you think people will look at Dont Look Back?

Pennebaker: I wonder about it. I always knew it would exist. Before Albert asked me if I wanted to go to England, I didn’t know anything about Dylan, really. I had heard one song on the radio — “The Times They Are a-Changin’,” maybe. I didn’t know who he was.

But when I met him and started hanging around with him, I started to think if I made this film out of this thing I was shooting, it would be the thing I would want, like if I had been able to make a film with [English poet Lord] Byron with [Percy and Mary] Shelley and all of those people in Pisa [where they all hung together from November 1821 to August 1822]. It would have been like the Haight. People would still be looking at that film. Nothing has ever been quite the same as Byron generated, in the world of writing. It was the end of poetry, and when Russian plays came in, people stopped getting their news out of poetry, and instead got them out of plays, and, eventually, out of novels.

So, Dylan to me seemed like an historical figure, and I could make a film people would be looking at long after we were all gone, because they’d want to know what times were like now, and that’s how they’d find it out. That was a huge feature in me wanting to make that film.

Mettler: And, like you said, you wanted the camera to not lie, and have it capture what was happening in the moment.

Pennebaker: Yeah. I like it when things are live. I rewrite nothing. We don’t even use the yellow pads. The camera is such an incredible instrument. When you point it at something, it can’t lie. You can try to trick it up, I guess, but I always think of it as a simple machine that does what it’s told. And it doesn’t fool you.

A longer version of the full Pennebaker interview appears on Mike Mettler’s own site, soundbard.com.