A skinny young man with a little kid’s haircut, his face bearing a hard-to-read expression, something between nonplussed and suspicious, stands in a back alley that could be tucked inside a war zone. Allen Ginsberg, bearded and bespectacled, lingers in the background, perhaps offering a blessing. The young man displays a series of cue cards featuring some lyrics to a song he wrote. We hear his recording of the song, but he’s not singing along. Maybe the cards are for us, but if so we’re going to have a hard time joining in because the lyrics are only fragments. Sometimes the wrong fragments. The young man is, of course, Bob Dylan. He’s in the first scene—which may also be the world’s first music video—of a movie about Bob Dylan. And his performance, or anti-performance, in this alley is reminding us to take everything that follows with a grain of salt. Or, as his later work would have it, of sand.
In my memory I often lump D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back (1967) in with Don Owen’s Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Leonard Cohen (1965). Both documentaries capture the artist as a young man, half-consciously honing his image, half-letting it find its own way, on the road, hanging out backstage, in the midst of what would prove to be a career-changing and ultimately culture-changing transition: Dylan playing what would be his final shows as a solo acoustic act, with Bringing it All Back Home in the can and the new, increasingly surrealistic and increasingly personal, genre-fusing, electrified bandleader about to forever eclipse the more overtly politicized Village folk troubadour; Cohen stealing the spotlight while touring with other Canadian poets, all more established than he, giving readings that at times feel more like stand-up while wearing a leather jacket, on the cusp of leaving behind a literary career to take up music and become one of the most covered and influential songwriters in history—second perhaps only to Dylan.
Where these two films differ greatly is in their scope and stakes. Cohen was, as a popular star, still all coiled potential, and Ladies and Gentlemen, running 44 minutes, feels by comparison somewhat more utilitarian, where Dylan was exploding, an already wildly prolific supernova of song, and Don’t Look Back finds him running from rabid fans, holding hotel rooms crammed with friends and hanger-ons—Marianne Faithful, Donovan and Alan Price among them—spellbound as he casually plays a tune, and antagonizing journalists, many of them condescending and under-prepared. And one of the reasons that Don’t Look Back remains historically important is that the filmmaking mirrors the transitional nature of its subject. Popular music was undergoing a sea change, with Dylan riding the crest, while the movies were being swept up in the revolutionary tactics of the French New Wave and cinéma vérité (or, if you prefer, direct cinema), with the on-the-fly, half-observational/half-artificial, formally playful and structurally happenstance Don’t Look Back absorbing lessons from both movements. So there’s a magical alignment of two distinct forms meeting to create something that must have felt startlingly new. Don’t Look Back is the inaugural screening in Metro Cinema’s series of music documentaries, and it makes sense that it is indeed first. After Don’t Look Back, the way we made movies about music would never be the same.