What, after all these years, most readily springs to Don “D.A.” Pennebaker’s mind about filming Bob Dylan? The Judas moment? The scores of loaf-haired shop girls tapping on dressing room windows? The seemingly endless stand-offs between singer and uncomprehending broadsheet toffs? Random things, as it happens. A dawn encounter on the docks of New York with a naval fighting ship and the captain striding out to tell a shock-haired, Ray-Banned Dylan that he had written a book which he named One Too Many Mornings after the Dylan song. A backstage exchange in which Dylan mentions The Animals to his friend Alan Price – clearly a sore point for Price, who has just left the band in acrimonious circumstances. Dylan backs off and plays a blues phrase on guitar; Price responds on the piano. “Two people bypassing words to speak with each other. Just beautiful.”
That said, there are moments whose significance were immediately apparent. In 1966, with Don’t Look Back finished, Pennebaker found himself in London once again, filming Dylan for his first electric tour. At the Mayfair, the singer paid host to the visiting Beatles, who joined him for an impromptu 3am premiere of the film. It may have turned out to be the most influential rock documentary of all time, but sitting in the New York office where he and his wife Chris Hedegus run their film company, an amused Pennebaker remembers no one in the room being especially impressed: “Dylan and Lennon, they really didn’t know what to make of it. And Paul wasn’t interested. Back then, most people saw the lack of what’s known in Hollywood as ‘production value’. The only person that got it was George Harrison. He came up to me and said, ‘That’s a real film.’”
As “Bobsessives” the world over ready themselves for tonight’s simultaneous premiere of Martin Scorcese’s Dylan documentary No Direction Home, Dylan ingénues could do a lot worse than set the video and head out to the Barbican where Don’t Look Back gets a rare public airing. Lest we forget, it was Pennebaker’s state-of-the-art 16mm camera in 1965 and 1966 that caught almost every gripping piece of archive footage on Scorcese’s film – the years when his subject ascended from the status of cult to spokesman of a generation. Hence when a 64 year-old Dylan tries to deconstruct the adulation afforded to him at his creative peak, we cut to the reluctant messiah at yet another press conference wearily fielding a variety of baffling questions: the one from the writer who asks if he really cares about what he is saying (“How can I answer that if you’ve got the nerve to ask me?”); the one from the writer who wants to know how many protest singers there are in America (“136. Maybe 142”). In the context of the relentless attention; the factions – folk fans; teenagers; beatniks; communists – all seeking to claim him as his own, it isn’t hard to see why Dylan felt the need to travel with an entourage, and later, a band.
With the possible exception of A Hard Day’s Night, Don’t Look Back was the first film to realize that the fascination comes not just from filming the talent but also the behaviour around it: “It intrigues me,” says Pennebaker, now 80, “to see how people deport themselves in the presence of some kind of major talent or knowledge. It’s what that person – in this case Dylan – knows that determines who they want to spend time with.” Momentarily deploying the kind of snappy Dylanese logic so abundant in Don’t Look Back, he continues, “I mean you don’t want to spend a lot of time with someone who knows nothing, right? You just want to get to the feel of someone who has trodden higher up the ladder of life than you ever will. And this was the first time someone had presented the idea that pop music could have the same completely heavy effect as a major work of art.”
Has Pennebaker seen Some Kind Of Monster – one of countless rock docs which have used Don’t Look Back as their template? In Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s documentary, we get to see Metallica enlisting the help of group therapist Phil Towle to iron out their differences. There’s a telling moment when the supposedly impartial Towle hands a piece of paper to singer James Hetfield. It’s an idea for a lyric. “Heh-heh! That’s exactly what I mean. I haven’t seen Some Kind Of Monster, but I can imagine the scenario. You can understand why people yield to those impulses. At the same time, I was pretty clear about my role in doing Don’t Look Back. The idea was simply to find somebody who is willing to let me into his life and, you know, just watch them.”
“Just watch” – those two words, as much as any, sum up the Pennebaker method. In contrast to the modern practice of breaking up concert footage with “revealing” interview footage, his legendary films of David Bowie’s final Ziggy Stardust show at Hammersmith and Jimi Hendrix at Monterey eschewed interviews and fast editing, bringing you closer to the moment as a result. And what moments. “Well, I can’t claim that I had heard of Jimi Hendrix prior to then,” concedes Pennebaker, “A friend of mine had told me about this new guy who sets his guitar on fire as he plays. And I thought, ‘Well, that’s a kind of blues I’ve never seen before. I was knocked out by it.”
Pennebaker’s warts-and-all approach to his subjects has, paradoxically, warmed them to him. After all these years, he still counts Dylan as a friend. He filmed Janis Joplin in several locations for a film he never got around to completing (“There are several films in my life that I never worked out how to finish, so I leave them the way they are”). Pennebaker remembers a smart but intensely insecure singer. “She was managed by Albert Grossman [Bob Dylan’s fiercely protective manager] and he set out to surround her with the very best musicians he could get. But that served to make her very competitive. She would sort of yell and it didn’t really help her. I would play her Billie Holliday records and maybe show her that there was maybe another way. Just as an act of friendship. Both on a professional and personal level, the problem was the drugs. I didn’t know how to deal with her drug use on film. It was part of her life, so you couldn’t ignore [it].”
Recent years have seen Pennebaker scale down his involvement with musicians. Depeche Mode sought him in 1989 for their 101 film. “I think they were after something like a real-life Spinal Tap, but Spinal Tap is actually a very sophisticated movie. Nevertheless, they were wonderful to work with. They were working-class kids with this wonderful idea that you didn’t have to have a big band. You just got a tape recorded and winsomely played along with it.” He’s possibly the world’s only octogenarian Radiohead fan. Judging by the band’s comically bleak 1998 verité documentary Meeting People Is Easy, the feeling is mutual: “That’s why I don’t feel the need to seek out musicians. People have learned that you can take a little camera that cost you under a thousand dollars and make a film for TV. And that’s fine. It doesn’t have to be me that does it.”
For many people, tonight’s broadcast of No Direction Home next week will offer a first chance to see footage from Eat The Document – the much bootlegged 1966 documentary whose release Dylan has never consented to sanction. Having handed over all his footage to Scorcese, Pennebaker says he’s unsure what the director has used. “I’m dying to see No Direction Home,” he says, “I just haven’t had a chance yet.” Thus your correspondent – having seen the film – finds himself in the peculiar position of having to describe Pennebaker’s footage back to him, in particular the freshly-excavated moment that has long since assumed mythical significance in the story of Bob Dylan’s life – the fan at Manchester Free Trade Hall, shouting “Judas!” in response to the singer’s supposed betrayal of his folk beginnings. “I’ve been told about it,” says Pennebaker blithely. “So, how does it look?” It’s extraordinary, I tell him. You hear everything clear as day: the heckle; a rattled Dylan saying, “I don’t believe you”; then bellowing the most incendiary Like A Rolling Stone imaginable. “Well, I’m dying to see it,” says the man who filmed it.
It seems incredible, I tell Pennebaker, that he has abolutely no memory of such a historic moment. “Well, that’s thing about making history,” he smiles, “You have no real awareness that it’s happening. You’re far too busy recording the present.”