Rock Documentary Catches A Rising Dylan

Toronto correspondent Margaret Bream covered the Toronto International Film Festival (Sept. 4 - 13) for Addicted To Noise. Here is her third report:

TORONTO -- Back when Princess Diana was still unknown to the paparazzi, Bob Dylan was creating the image of the modern icon, in Don't Look Back, D.A. Pennebaker's landmark 1967 documentary.

Pennebaker, now 71, brought it all back home for an audience at the recent Toronto International Film Festival, in a discussion of the cult of celebrity on the same day as Diana's funeral in England. The veteran rock-doc filmmaker was invited to Toronto as a featured artist in the festival's new "Masters" program, which salutes pioneers and innovators. He and wife, Chris Hegedus, who has been Pennebaker's filmmaking partner since 1975, offered a single screening of Don't Look Back, Pennebaker's rough-and-ready document of Dylan's tour of England in 1965.

The packed audience gave an enthusiastic reception to the film,

considered to be one of the first features to come out of the American cinema verite movement of the '60s.

Now some 30 years after those tumultuous times, it's easy to see that Don't

Look Back is flawed. As Pennebaker admitted at the screening, it's shot in

grainy black and white and the sound is dreadful. But the film

overcomes these drawbacks and survives as a modern classic precisely because its low-tech 16 mm production allowed the filmmaker unfettered access to his subject at his most unguarded moments.

Backstage or onstage, what flows from Dylan to the camera lens is the

boundless energy and talent of the 24-year-old rising star as well as

something more unexpected. The artist's verbal wit, by turns sarcastic

and sardonic, falls over the proceedings like a torrent of rain in the

desert. It's amusing, and a bit shocking, to see how much Dylan's inferior

English counterpart, Donovan, seemed to spook him. The thought now of a rivalry between the man who wrote "Subterranean Homesick Blues" and the man who wrote "Mellow Yellow" is absurd, but such is the fleeting and

unpredictable nature of fame.

As an unflinching look at the cult of celebrity, Don't Look Back is

surprisingly relevant to modern audiences. In one sequence, Dylan

escapes in a black limousine, from a horde of autograph seekers, following a concert. But one fan manages to stick with the star -- by clinging to the top of the

get-away vehicle. The scene is amusing in a way. But on the day I screened the film, England was burying its rose, Diana, Princess of Wales, and the image of a public insatiable for its crowned heads -- of rock or royalty -- seemed sad,

not funny.

Pennebaker said in an interview he turns his hand-held camera on

people who are in the midst of change. He's often surprised, but rarely

disappointed at what he captures. "It's like a car stops and a beautiful or handsome person invites you to get in," he said of his filmmaking style. "And you get in, and it turns out the story is going to be really about two people in the back seat. But you get a fantastic ride."

After the surprise hit of Don't Look Back, Pennebaker went on to make

many other documentaries, including 1968's Monterey Pop and 1970's

Sweet Toronto, which captured the drug-hazy excesses of the 1969 Toronto Rock 'n' Roll Revival, and John Lennon's first post-Beatles solo show. Pennebaker's 1993 film with Hegedus, The War Room, a behind-the-scenes look at the mechanics of getting Clinton elected president, was nominated for an Academy Award.

Pennebaker and Hegedus also presented their newest film, Moon Over Broadway, to excellent reviews at this year's Toronto film festival. Using the cinema verite techniques Pennebaker first pioneered in the Dylan flick, the film examines the off-stage life of a farcical play as it makes its way from rehearsals to Broadway. Moon Over Broadway, like Don't Look Back 30 years earlier, reveals the power of fly-on-the-wall filmmaking. [Fri., Sept. 19, 1997, 9 a.m. PST]