When it comes to documentary film laws, no one has you covered quite as well as Karen Shatzkin.
Don’t Look Back
...because "Don’t Look Back" doesn't just feel like it invented the rock n’ roll documentary. It actually did. D.A. Pennebaker’s film chronicled Bob Dylan’s 1965 tour of the United Kingdom. A proponent of direct cinema, Pennebaker used advances in hand-held camera technology to create a pure, unscripted look at the life of a rock star. However, "Don’t Look Back" is probably most famous today for its staged opening scene, in which Dylan holds up cue cards with the lyrics to his song “Subterranean Homesick Blues” synched up with the film’s soundtrack.
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With "Don’t Look Back," D.A. Pennebaker helped to create the aesthetic of the direct cinema style. Closely linked with Jean Rouch’s cinema verite and the theories of Dziga Vertov, direct cinema seeks to present a pure vision of reality on film. The filmmaker turns the camera into a strict observer of events in order to capture an objective truth instead of a subjective interpretation. "Don’t Look Back" rejected established documentary conventions like voice-over and archive footage in favor of an intimate, behind-the-scenes look at Bob Dylan and his entourage. In doing so, the film offered a more authentic representation of a public figure on his way to becoming a musical legend. In fact, Dylan’s “character” in Pennebaker’s film appeared so raw and unfiltered that critics like Roger Ebert have found him downright unlikeable.
"Don’t Look Back" essentially created the documentary genre that we’ve come to know as the rockumentary. It’s hard to believe that rock n’ roll was once considered a young art form, but in 1967 rock had barely been around for a decade. Rock stars like Elvis Presley had acted in films and the Beatles had played fictionalized versions of themselves in "A Hard Day’s Night." Pennebaker was one of the first filmmakers to realize that rock music dominated popular culture, and that documentaries could, well, document its rise. In hindsight, nearly any aspiring filmmaker in his or her right mind would have wanted to follow Bob Dylan around in 1965, but Pennebaker was the person who thought to do it in his own time. Sure, it probably helped that Pennebaker’s unobtrusive style matched the kind of laid back, uncaring sense of cool that Dylan projected. But "Don’t Look Back" remains not only one of the best documentaries ever made, but a significant relic of music history and American culture.
Now that we all have cameras on our pocket-sized phones, it’s probably hard to imagine a time when hand-held cameras were new. Yet the development of smaller, mobile cameras was still recent in 1965, which allowed Pennebaker to follow Dylan around without lugging an entire film production crew with him. These hand-held cameras not only created the realistic look of the film, but also allowed Pennebaker to blend in and capture seemingly personal moments of Dylan, Joan Baez and others. Reality television may have ruined this “fly on the wall” style for everyone, but Pennebaker was among the first to use it.
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