A documentary filmmaker is never better than his subjects. Sometimes he’s worse. When D.A. Pennebaker had great subjects he made great films. I’m not sure about the rest. Those great subjects happened to be Bob Dylan in the mid-60’s and the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967.

To be fair, the only other film of Pennebaker’s I’ve seen is 1993’s The War Room, about Bill Clinton’s successful campaign for the presidency the year before. The skill was there, and the subject was, too. But Pennebaker missed it. He treated the campaign the way the campaign wanted to be treated and since it was obvious, even a year later, that the campaign was made up of craven phonies, beginning at the top, it’s an empty exercise. A great artist would have sensed the opportunity to expose all that, and done so at any cost.

So let’s not call D.A. Pennebaker a great artist.

But he was an enormously skilled craftsman and that skill won him the opportunity to capture two signature events in the decade that marked the American Experiments greatest opportunities for both success and failure. That the latter has swamped the former in the decades since was not the fault of Pennebaker or his subjects. To judge how fortunate we are to have had him at the helm of Don’t Look Back and Monterey Pop, you don’t need to look any further than Martin Scorcese’s The Last Waltz, where what might have been an electric event was turned sodden by Scorcese’s choice of distancing the audience from the performers. 

Maybe you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. But you need somebody with a sense of the moment to capture the moment.

D.A. Pennebaker sensed the moment that mattered. After that, he was blown away by the wind.

Then again, so was Bob Dylan. What you can sense, in both Don’t Look Back and the incendiary performances etched on the national memory by the soon-dead Janis, Jimi, Keith and Otis across the long weekend at Monterey, is that no one was going to get out intact, even in the unlikely event they got out alive. You can still feel it whenever and whatever those films play.

Thank Donn Alan Pennebaker for that. Left in anyone else’s hands, a lot that we can see and feel and hear from the decade we’ll still have to understand if we’re ever going to get out of this alive ourselves, might be left to our imaginations. Which could never match this:




At least according to Terry Teachout, this idea has been going around. Terry’s own list is here (it’s a pretty good one). The idea is to take each year of your life and list your favorite film from that year.

For me, “favorite” is a simple concept. It’s whatever resides at the matrix of what I like the best and what has meant the most. I tend to emphasize this quality over what I think is “great” anyway (though, unsurprisingly, there is considerable overlap…we tend to elevate what we like, though I also like to believe that what we like can elevate us).

I want to drill down a bit, though (including links to those films I’ve written about at length and mentioning the close competition, when it exists), so I’m going to post these by decade…starting conveniently enough with the decade I was born in and am most fascinated by…

1960 The Apartment (Billy Wilder) (over Swiss Family Robinson and Psycho)

1961 The Guns of Navarone (J. Lee Thompson…and, for once, truth in advertising)

1962 The Miracle Worker (Arthur Penn) (over The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Ride the High Country, Cape Fear, The Manchurian Candidate…I could go on. Easily the strongest film year of my lifetime.)

1963 Charade (Stanley Donen)  (over The Great Escape and Hud)

1964 The T.A.M.I. Show (Steve Binder) (Actually a strong year, but….no competition)

1965 A High Wind in Jamaica (Alexander Mackendrick) (over That Darn Cat and The Truth About Spring)

1966 Gambit  (Ronald Neame) (over A Man For All Seasons and El Dorado)

1967 The Graduate (Mike Nichols) (over Wait Until Dark, Hombre, Don’t Look Back and the Soviet version of War and Peace)

1968 Monterrey Pop (D.A. Pennebaker) (over Where Eagles Dare…Interesting decision if I took one of those liberties I’m prone to take and considered Elvis’ Comeback Special a film. Glad I don’t have to make it.)

1969 Medium Cool (Haskell Wexler) (over Support Your Local was a very strange year.)

Overall, a strong decade. As will be the 70s. After that….dicey.








Sheila O’Malley recently participated in–and linked to–an interesting poll of best/favorite movies from the 60’s that posted here.

I don’t do a lot of these, but this concept was pretty interesting, mostly because, well, the sixties are always interesting. Besides I haven’t done any autobiography for a while (and that’s what such lists always amount to) and this was something I could get my head around. There weren’t so many contenders it made my head swim (as would be the case in the forties or fifties or probably even the thirties). And there were enough that I cared about to make it worthwhile (as would not be the case from the eighties onward). The poll (which I recommend as interesting reading) had everyone put their choices in order, so I’ll do the same…albeit with commentary:

1) The T.A.M.I. Show (1964–Steve Binder): Greater in every conceivable way than A Hard Day’s Night, which is pretty great on its own. Binder, who directed Elvis’ comeback special among many other things, should absolutely be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. This would be a huge cultural touchstone if only for preserving a visual record of James Brown’s stage show, but it’s much, much more than that.

2) The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962–John Ford): The source of “Well, Pilgrim,” “You don’t own me,” “Print the legend,” and “Aren’t you proud?” As far as I can tell, everyone who wasn’t aiming for Lesley Gore’s demo pile mistook it for a film about the past.

3) The Miracle Worker (1962–Arthur Penn): For reasons I discussed at length here.

4) Medium Cool (1968)–Haskell Wexler): “The whole world is watching” side of the sixties rendered with harrowing immediacy.

5) The Graduate (1968)–Mike Nichols): “Plastics!” Funny line, sure, but it also feels more like the future we live in than anything else anyone was predicting at the time.

6) Swiss Family Robinson (1960–Ken Annakin): Laugh if you want. But Annakin spent the fifties honing a laughs-n-thrills approach that George Lucas and Steven Spielberg made fortunes and legends from a generation later. They’ve given him plenty of kudos and paid plenty of homage (including a lot of direct scene steals and, of course, Darth Vader’s real name). All to the good, but one thing they didn’t ever do was beat his time. (Besides which, Janet Munro was my first movie love, so leaving it off would obviously make me a churl and a cad.)

7) The Apartment (1960–Billy Wilder): I never quite bought that Shirley McClaine’s character would fall for a creep like Fred McMurray hard enough to attempt suicide over him, but, if it’s not quite perfect, this is still the only truly poignant romantic comedy outside of the truly perfect Roman Holiday.

8) The Truth About Spring (1965–Richard Thorpe): There are those who can contemplate a list of what’s best about the sixties without including a Hayley Mills movie. I’m the wrong age and temperament to be one of them, so I’ll just add that if J. Lee Thompson had been able to snag her for Cape Fear–a Divine Intention that was thwarted by a conflict between God’s schedule and Hollywood’s (which was resolved, as these things so often are, in favor of the latter), stung him (Thompson, though probably God as well) for the rest of his life, and, of course, greatly hastened the decline of Western Civilization–it would be on this list instead, and no worse than fourth. (That said: “Tommy…if you shoot Ashton, I’ll never cook for you again!” still slays me.)

9) Monterey Pop (1968–D.A. Pennebaker): The pinnacle of what The T.A.M.I. Show promised–and, with the soon-to-follow deaths of its most dynamic performers (Otis Redding, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin–the latter two already operating at a pace that any rational person watching this at the time must have known could not possibly be sustained)–the first step in the long fall from the mountain-top of the sixties’ dream.

10) Age of Consent (1969–Michael Powell): Features a very young Helen Mirren running around some South Sea paradise with little to no clothing on. Whether God or Satan was responsible for this particular aesthetic choice (which, as far as I’m concerned redeems the sixties all by itself) is obviously a matter for each person to decide in consultation with their own conscience. However, just “artistically” speaking, the beauty is that, either way, that single aspect surely redeems any and all shortcomings–real or imagined–for which this film (or this list!) might ever conceivably be held otherwise responsible.



Honorable Mentions That At Least Crossed My Mind (In No Particular Order): Gambit (1966–Ronald Neame); El Dorado (1967–Howard Hawks); Charade (1963–Stanley Donen); Psycho (1960–Alfred Hitchcock); Ride the High Country (1962–Sam Peckinpah); Cape Fear (1962–J. Lee Thompson); The Great Escape (1963–John Sturges); The Guns of Navarone (1961–J. Lee Thompson); The Best Man (1964–Franklin Shaffner); Don’t Look Back (1967–D.A. Pennebaker); The Americanization of Emily (1964–Arthur Hiller): Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964–Stanley Kubrick); The L-Shaped Room (1962–Bryan Forbes)


“Don’t look back–something might be gaining on you.”

Leroy “Satchel” Paige, Collier’s, June 13, 1953.

Usually when a quote is too good to be true, it’s too good to be true. One of the nice things about Satchel Paige was that his too-good-to-be-true quotes were almost always things he actually said.

The phrase “don’t look back” has an interesting history in popular music. Before 1964, it was never used as the title of a hit song on any American chart and was undoubtedly rare as either a direct quote or a common sentiment in American music or American life.

I don’t mean to say the idea wasn’t around or even that the common language hadn’t already made some sort of place for it. Hard to judge that. What does seem evident is that it hadn’t made its way far enough into the nation’s everyday speech to become insidious. When that happens, we know what happens next.

Somebody writes a song about it.

Beginning in 1964, somebody did. And somebody or other has been re-writing it ever since.

It’s interesting to think about what happened in the interim between Paige’s quote–with its insinuation of paranoia-that-isn’t-really-paranoia-if-that’s-a-lynch-mob-on-your-trail camped squarely inside a good joke that everybody could relate to–and 1964.

1953 to 1964. H-m-m-m-m.

Too much to take in on election day, probably. So just think about what had happened recently, like maybe a March on Washington where the leader of the current manifestation of a century old Civil Rights movement, who happened not at all coincidentally to be a minister, had actually managed to address the nation’s central sin in such perfect language and in such a public fashion that it could not, at last, be ignored.

Then, of course, the sitting president took a bullet in the head, and the man who took his place–piggy-backing those two forever linked events–pushed through historic civil rights legislation in July of 1964.

During the middle of all that–I haven’t been able to trace the exact moment–a black man named John Lee Hooker, who happened to be one of the dozen or so blues singers the world can more or less inarguably call a genius (and who, in his very essence, represented the precise element of the population that has always made white America want to lock up its daughters, not to mention the element intellectuals are bound to call “primitive” when they suspect something is up that they better get a handle on and have to go fishing for a compliment that’s not really a compliment).

I don’t know if Hooker was channeling Paige or not but he was certainly onto something. As a cultural catch-phrase, “don’t look back” arrived within months of “free at last, free at last, thank God almighty we’re free at last.”

It has stuck around even longer.

Of course, the catch-phrase and the music that surrounded it got hollowed out with time. It’s never gone away, exactly. It’s just been co-opted. It was the title of a bland country hit for Gary Morris in the eighties. A party time cover for Teena Marie. A catchy classic rock number (with at least some of its original power retained) for Boston in the seventies. A UK number for Lucie Silvas a few years back, where it was finally indistinguishable from any other set of words that don’t mean anything (catch it on YouTube if you must).

That’s how it goes with catch-phrases that speak to wounds. What we can’t heal, we keep sticking gauze on.

Eventually, the gauze is the permanent feature. The wound goes back to being out of sight out of mind….Wound? What wound?

But there was a moment in the mid-sixties when Hooker’s phrase crept into the world in a new way.

Oh, it never quite “broke out.” I imagine we were still a bit leery of the notion being put so bluntly, even though it was supposed to be an indestructible part of our national ethos. I haven’t heard Hooker’s original version but it’s hard to believe it’s much better–or bleaker–than honorary American Van Morrison’s 1965 cover. Or that it contains much deeper paranoia than the Remains’ garage rock classic (different song, same title) from 1966.

None of those records made the charts. Maybe that was just the luck of the draw. There were other records as good as those by Morrison (then still with his original band, Them) or the Remains, which didn’t make the charts either. Not many, but some. Enough to make it barely plausible that some sort of underlying aura of suspicion or discomfort wasn’t the only possible explanation.

And, of course, there was D.A. Pennebaker’s monumental documentary of Bob Dylan’s trip to England in 1966–injected under the toe-nails of the national conscience, residing there like a thorn ever since.

Called it Don’t Look Back, they did.


In the last days, there will be warnings and rumors of warnings. Consider yourself warned.

The phrase found it’s apex, though, in 1965, when another African-American musical genius named Smokey Robinson collaborated with his fellow Miracle Ronnie White and came up with a B-side for the era’s (or maybe just history’s) greatest vocal group.

In a scenario as perfect as Satchel Paige’s original quote–and with the same mixture of hope and dread woven deeply into its aural fabric (all the more deeply for being conceived as filler and for being released just as we entered the quagmire in Viet Nam from which the national soul has never really emerged)–it reached #83 on the Pop chart, #15 on the R&B chart, and, riding a rare moment when the Temptations’ third lead, Paul Williams, left Eddie Kendricks and even David Ruffin in the dust, permanent status as a staple on the group’s compilations despite being rarely heard on the radio since….And as the go-to anthem for every election day that has come and gone ever after.

Tomorrow, half of America will wake up depressed, wondering how the country will possibly survive, and the other half will wake up relieved, thankful that catastrophe has been so narrowly averted, reminding themselves that treading water in a shark pool still beats drowning!

And rock and roll will still be the closest thing we have to something we can agree on.

Have a happy…

The Temptations “Don’t Look Back” (Television Performance)