Friday, October 21, 2016

Get Some Sleep!: A Contextual Review Of Dont Look Back

Bob Dylan

Starting on Friday, April 30th 1965, Bob Dylan made a 11 day concert tour of England - the first organized "concert tour" he ever went on. D A Pennebaker convinced Dylan or someone to let him follow Dylan around with a camera the whole time. This ended up being a movie:

Specifically, This Movie

In May of 1965, Dylan was about to turn 24 years old and three years deep into a record contract. He had an intense cult following and critical acclaim to spare, but was having difficulties turning this into album sales. His latest single "Subterranean Homesick Blues" - a deeply weird folk-rap with a shambolic garage rock backing - had managed to scrape the bottom of the US charts (number 39!) even as it ripped his folk purist cult following to shreds. His albums weren't doing much better - his first album had bombed so hard that it nearly destroyed not only his own career, but that of the executive that hired him. Two of his next three albums managed to make it into the top 30, but it was clear to anyone who looked at a checkbook that the songs (which included "Blowin' In The Wind" and "Times They Are A-Changin'") were being quoted, covered and ripped off more than bought.

This was the first image that came up when I typed "UK 1965" into Google.

But Bob Dylan records were selling much better in England, where they had some distinct advantages. The Beatles seal of approval, for one. They practically worshiped Bob Dylan, and their word was worth a lot. Another was distance from Dylan's strident pro-Civil Rights activism. Dylan had refused to go on tastemaker Ed Sullivan's show when CBS asked Dylan to drop a satirical song (Sullivan defended Dylan, but it added up to nothing). Finally, England is itself a smaller audience where word of mouth can consume an entire country. Dylan's pitbull manager Al Grossman (who surreptitiously helped himself to 50% of Dylan's songwriter fees - just in case you thought the most acclaimed songwriter in America could get rich) made a deal for an English concert tour with English super-agent Tito Burns. The money was clear - Bob's second album was the "fastest selling folk album in the history of England" according to a reporter somewhere in the movie.

Seated: Grossman, Dylan and Baez

According to a newspaper article read aloud in the movie, Dylan arrived in England by plane mere hours before his first scheduled concert in Sheffield. With Dylan were his aforementioned manager Al Grossman; Bob's famous, successful and beautiful girlfriend Joan Baez; unpleasant hanger-on Bob Neuwirth and super-producer Tom Wilson (who, if you need bonafides, produced Sun Ra's first professional album). Each of these people is leeching out something different from him: Wilson and Dylan are still developing their folk-rock sound; Neuwirth is a hanger-on; Baez came thinking she'd get to perform a few nights with Dylan; and Grossman is Dylan and Baez's manager.

Tito Burns is to the right

There's a lot of mean spirit in this movie. At one point, Tito Burns and Al Grossman conspire to put the BBC and another promotion into a bidding war over a Dylan appearance. Burns is convinced they can get the fee raised to £1,500, but not if they demand it right off the bat. One gets the feeling that The Beatles didn't have to fight over £300 (which, admittedly, is $6,712 in 2016 money). I'm still not sure if Bob Neuwirth had any job at all beyond being mean to everyone except alpha dogs Dylan, Grossman and Wilson.

Bob Dylan and D A Pennebaker

But in terms of personal cruelty, the central figure is Ol' Robert Dylan himself. The only thing that stops Dylan from being completely unsympathetic is his tendency to retreat into himself when annoyed. There's a scene early in the movie when Dylan is signing autographs from some fangirls and one of them off handedly mentions she likes his acoustic stuff better than his electric stuff. She has no idea that she stepped right on an issue Dylan is extremely sensitive about, and one can see Dylan physically choke back venom even though he knows that there is no point and no victory in spitting it at this school girl. Dylan frequently rags on the perfectly nice Donovan, for no particular reason except that Donovan's name keeps randomly popping up during his tour. Dylan obsesses over chart performance and filling halls - as he has to at this point in his career. Indifference is a luxury. It seems to be obvious to everyone except Joan Baez that Dylan and Baez's relationship is over - he barely acknowledges her until she starts singing Hank Williams songs and he never gets around to putting her on stage (aka the entire fucking reason she flew to England). Once she gets the message, she disappears and Dylan's behavior no longer benefits from having her positivity as a chaser.

Tommy Wiseau imitating Dylan

Dylan is trying to make a contradiction real. In order to function he has to be a celebrity - he's a singer-songwriter, not a corner-store druggist after all. But Dylan is incapable of giving straight answers to anyone. Over the course of the movie, he gives increasingly petty attacks to the press. Recall the episode of the high school girls - they love and own every Bob Dylan record, but they don't like them his way (the little monsters). Like Tommy Wiseau, Dylan combines a lust for fame and a demand for anonymity.

If it seems like I keep returning to the fangirls, I suppose I should be honest about why. Because he can't just spew hatred at them, it's the only time in the whole movie Bob Dylan says anything interesting. One of the girls says Subterranean Homesick Blues "... doesn't sound like you", to which Dylan responds "But I made it with my friends. I got a right to make things with my friends, don't I?". If Dylan could have been that disarming and unusual with the reporters, they'd take their pound of copy and leave.

Corey Feldman is an illustration of "not making it". Sorry, Mr Feldman.

Watching this movie again, the truly fascinating thing about this movie isn't necessarily what happens as what failed to happen. Legendary Nobel Prize Winner Bob Dylan is, in this movie and at this point in his life, nothing but a low-to-mid-level celebrity so wrapped up in himself that he can barely function. There have been plenty of musicians with more success than Dylan has had at the point of this movie that went on to be nothing. People go from six figure advances to their parent's basements easier than you might think. It wouldn't be hard to imagine a world in which grocery store owner & college drop-out Bobby Zimmerman is bemused to see his songs on bargain 60's CD collections. He shows up on Where Are They Now? shows to explain how the early recall of Freewheelin' and Grossman's management made it impossible for him to make money. Even more darkly, in that world, Subterranean Homesick Blues is remembered on awful What Were They Thinking? TV as an incomprehensible attempt to sell out to rising of electrified rock while still appealing to the oh-so-massive Beat poet audience.

Yes, I'm glad to say some good came out of all this. You see, Dylan was able to channel all the negativity and anger he exuded in this movie into a song - you might have heard of it. This song went to number 2 (kept off by The Beatles, of course) and retroactively made Dylan into an Always Is instead of the Has Been he might have been. Tom Wilson produced that song, which is remembered as the crowning achievement of his long and varied career. Joan Baez recovered from the break-up to make some of her most artistically interesting records, including perhaps the greatest Christmas Album ever. Al Grossman, Tito Burns and 8 concert hall owners made good money. Even Donovan embraced folk rock with "Sunshine Superman" and never looked back. That's a precedent that I'll now follow.

I made it through an entire review of a folk music movie without mentioning A Mighty Wind. This ending is just to fix that.

No comments:

Post a Comment