D.A. Pennebaker’s Unreleased Dylan Film


(R.I.P. D.A. Pennebaker, who died Aug. 1, 2019 at age 94.)

BY Steven RosenDenver Post, October 17, 1998

IT’S 1966 ALL over again in the world of pop music – and the
Denver International Film Festival, which just concluded, was in
the center of it. That’s because the record Bob Dylan Live 1966: The ‘Royal
Albert Hall’ Concert’
 was just released this week – some 32
years after the performance.


It was instantly hailed as one of rock’s great live
recordings. And the publicity surrounding the long-delayed
release has interested old and young music lovers in the story
of how folk singer Dylan switched to amplified rock ‘n’ roll in
1965 and 1966. He changed pop culture forever.

Actually taped at the Manchester Free Trade Hall on
May 17, 1966, the new album reveals Dylan and his band playing
majestically loud in response to hecklers who wanted to hear him
solo, accompanied only by his acoustic guitar and harmonica. In
July, after the European tour was over, Dylan was seriously
injured in a New York motorcycle accident and for many years
retreated from touring.

The story of “Dylan goes electric” has become contemporary
myth on the order of Arthur finding Excalibur and becoming king.
Now, after all these years during which bootleg tapes circulated
among collectors, a wide audience can hear a concert recording
from that time.

But few people know there are still two never-released films
of Dylan’s 1966 European tour, where he and his band members –
including Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson and Richard
Manuel of the Hawks – played blistering rock ‘n’ roll to a
sometimes-resistant audience. (Dylan opened shows with an
acoustic set.)

But two people who do know about the movies were at this
year’s Denver film festival – directors D.A. Pennebaker and
Harry Rasky. Both were involved, to varying degrees, in trying
to make a movie of the tour.

“It is rather strange,” Pennebaker said. “You go for a
long period of time and there’s not much interest in it and you
think, ‘Well, it’s not as great as I thought it was.’ And then
suddenly something starts it back up.”

Pennebaker is one of the pioneers of cinema-verite
documentaries. He was in Denver with his wife and filmmaking
partner of some 20 years, Chris Hegedus, to show their latest
work, Moon Over Broadway. They also received the festival’s
John Cassavetes Award.

In 1965, Pennebaker filmed Dylan’s solo tour of England,
which occurred just before the musician’s shift to rock. That
movie became the now-classic Don’t Look Back. Dylan called
him in early 1966 to help film his upcoming European concerts.
Dylan had contracted with ABC to produce a television special
about his tour.

“We had a meeting in Los Angeles and Bob said, ‘You got your
movie and now I want you to help me make mine.’ And I said
‘sure,”’ Pennebaker said.

Dylan’s plan, apparently, was to create a film that was both
structurally and emotionally confrontational and radical – just
like his music of the period. (A spokesman at Dylan’s record
company said he was unavailable for comment.) But ABC had other
ideas, and hired Harry Rasky to be the director.

Rasky, who now produces documentaries for the Canadian
Broadcasting Corp., was in Denver to show his new Christopher
Plummer: King of Players.
 He recalled his Dylan ’66 experience
“one of the great traumas of my life.” He had just completed a
program on Fidel Castro’s Cuba, including a rare Che Guevara
interview, when ABC called him.

“It seemed to me they chose me as a free-minded guy,” Rasky
said. “But the minute Dylan found out I had been asked by ABC
to do the film, he thought I was the voice of authority.

“He said, ‘OK, you can make the film but I won’t listen to
direction.’ I thought I could ingratiate myself to him. So we
all went to London and stayed at the Mayfair Hotel. Dylan said,
‘We’re going to do things my way.”’

After a week, Dylan’s manager paid him a full salary to
leave. But he did have one unusual experience – attending a
private late-night screening of Don’t Look Back with Dylan
and the Beatles. When it was over, he said, he discovered the
Beatles asleep.

Once the tour began and filming started, Pennebaker recalled,
Dylan intentionally tried to keep people around him on edge.

“He was getting a big pot boiling, with everybody kind of at
odds and uncertain and confused and even a little … (annoyed)
and then film that condition in various ways,” Pennebaker said.

“It’s a way for people who aren’t filmmakers but are
consummate dramatists in one way or another to create a kind of
scene for a film,” he said. “They’re not writing; writing
scenes is an art in itself. So Bob just simply said, ‘I’ll get a
lot of people together and we’ll see what happens.”’

Pennebaker, who, along with Howard Alk, was filming selected
concert dates, doesn’t recall crowd response because he was
watching the musicians. “The music was wonderful,” he said.
“They were some of the best concerts I ever shot. It was
wondrous. And I was taken up with how to film them.”

In particular, he wanted to get close – right on stage, if
necessary – to film the musicians. “Dylan and Robbie (guitarist
Robertson) really were into it, and cut themselves off from
everything else, as if they weren’t even aware there was an
audience there. It was an amazing thing to watch.

“Always up to that point, when Dylan would go out acoustic,
he was completely aware of the audience – he dominated that
audience,” he said. “He almost dared them to make a noise or
get out of line. And in this case, it was as if he didn’t …
(care) what they were doing or thinking. And in order to get
that, I began to think we couldn’t film that with long lenses.

“I had to get out on stage, put a wide angle lens on the
camera and get into it, myself. That was a big decision. It
meant the first time Dylan came out on stage and I was standing
there with a camera, he almost flipped. He laughed because he
hadn’t expected it, but it made it possible to get the kind of
performance we couldn’t otherwise get.”

In June, after the tour concluded, Pennebaker said, Dylan’s
management found itself with no movie and facing an ABC
deadline. So at management’s request, Pennebaker edited his
footage into a 45-50 minute “rough sketch” called You Know
Something Is Happening.
 (The title comes from a phrase in a
Dylan song.)

“It would be like a continuation of Don’t Look Back,
Pennebaker said. “Don’t Look Back 2 – what happened when the
electricity was turned on.”

But Dylan didn’t like it and, with Alk, used different tour
footage to construct his own anti-documentary called Eat the
 ABC rejected it, and both movies have been more or
less forgotten.

But with the release of the new record, there has also been a
revival of interest in Eat the Document. The Museum of
Television & Radio branches in New York and Los Angeles are holding
special screenings of the film. There are no plans, however, to
make “Something Is Happening” available.

Rasky meanwhile said he still regrets not having the chance
to help Dylan make the kind of film he wanted – one that
explores a highly regarded, singer-songwriter’s personality and
relationship to his audience while also featuring music.

“But I made it up a few years later by making that film with
Leonard Cohen – The Song of Leonard Cohen,” he said.

That, too, has remained virtually unseen seen since its
Canadian TV broadcast.

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