Documentary filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker still gets a laugh from quoting an early review of “Dont Look Back,” his groundbreaking look at Bob Dylan’s 1965 last solo acoustic tour of England.
“We’re not going to hear much about this guy or this film in 50 years,” he recalled during a recent screening in Manhattan to help launch an exhibit of new photographs made directly from the film’s negative.
Dylan still tours and records at age 75. Pennebaker, 90, still works with wife and directing partner Chris Hegedus (their latest film, “Unlocking the Cage,” which tells the story of animal rights attorney Steven Wise, opens theatrically in Los Angeles on June 24).
The photos are a new iteration of a landmark work with a humble origin that Pennebaker still relishes recalling.
Pennebaker had been looking to strike out on his own after toiling on nonfiction films for Time Life. He got the chance when Dylan’s manager at the time, Albert Goldman, asked if wanted to film the singer’s British tour. Pennebaker had known Dylan only from hearing “The Times They Are A-Changin’ ” on the radio and never saw him perform. That didn’t matter.
“Filming a musician for a tour?” Pennebaker said he thought at the time. “How can I not want to do that?”
Using a lightweight 16-millimeter camera with a sound system he built himself, Pennebaker captured an intimate, cinéma vérité-style look at the epicenter of a cultural phenomenon. Along with performing and writing songs, Dylan is shown reacting to fans and an array of all-star musicians who wanted to stand in his glow. He torments neck-tied journalists who didn’t quite get him. The film also shows how even a poet is curious to know where his records are on the charts.
Stylistically, Pennebaker’s final product wasn’t anywhere near as polished as “A Hard Day’s Night,” the Beatles’ romp that it was initially compared to. Pennebaker describes “Dont Look Back” as “too ratty-looking,” which kept it from getting distributed even though its subject was having a transformative effect on rock and pop music. Television would not touch it.
But word of mouth put people in the seats wherever Pennebaker managed to show it. “The minute you said Dylan the place would be full,” he said.
Eventually, Pennebaker found a taker: the owner of a chain of adult movie theaters on the West Coast.
“I showed him the film, and afterwards he said, ‘It’s exactly the film I’m looking for – it looks like a porno film and it’s not,’” Pennebaker said. “His wife wanted him to clean up his act so he could join the country club or something. He was so excited; he said, ‘I’m going to give you this fantastic theater in San Francisco.’ He ran it at the Presidio and we had one 16-millimeter print, which I had almost worn out showing it to distributors in New York. It ran there for about a year. I used to pray every night that it would hold up. “
By the fall of 1967, Pennebaker was able to make a 35-millimeter print of “Dont Look Back” that played in New York theaters.
Arthouse 18 proprietor Joseph Baldassare used a restored 16-millimeter print to create stills capturing iconic moments in the film, such as the opening sequence showing Dylan flipping large cards with the lyrics of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” in an alley behind London’s Savoy Hotel.
Others photos show Dylan onstage or in repose while wearing his trademark Wayfarer sunglasses. The images look like they could be on the album cover of a singer-songwriter emerging in 2016.
“If you look around at these photos, they look like Williamsburg, present-day,” Baldassare said, referring to the Brooklyn neighborhood known for hipsters. “His look is so powerful it’s still being emulated.”
“Dont Look Back” went on to set a box-office record for a documentary film.
When it comes to documentaries, Baldassare said Pennebaker “brought fire to the village” by imagining the technology that led to the explosion of nonfiction filmmaking. After witnessing the musical revolution brought on by Dylan, the 2012 winner of an Academy Award for career achievement with credits that include “Monterey Pop” and “The War Room,” believes he’s present at another one going on in his craft.
“The fact is that 75 years ago, whenever I started, nobody ever imagined making a movie by themselves,” Pennebaker said. “You had to go to a factory in Los Angeles. You had to hire a thousand people and a lot of equipment. Impossible. Now everybody in the … world is making movies by themselves. Talk about revolutions. How can there ever be a bigger one than that?”