A friend of Justin Rice's mentioned something about Look Back, Don't Look Back nearly a year ago--about how it was about to become tied up in litigation, because Rice and filmmaking partner Randy Bell had lifted Bob Dylan's music and likeness without first receiving permission from Sony Music and The Man himself. Since then, the half-hour documentary about The Quest for Bob has quietly made the film-fest rounds, playing South by Southwest, the New York Underground Film Festival, and the New England Film and Video Festival (where it took best-of-fest honors). The Dallas-born, 24-year-old Rice, who met the 22-year-old Bell when the two were attending Harvard University, says the legal troubles never came to pass: They sent the film to someone at the Los Angeles-based International Documentary Association, who in turn shot a copy to Jeff Rosen, Dylan's gatekeeper--and the very man who dismisses the two young filmmakers during taped phone conversations throughout Look Back, Don't Look Back.
"He actually took it pretty well," Rice says. "It's shown at a lot of festivals, and I don't think it bothers him. It has prevented us from selling the movie and making money off it, but he took it well. I talked to him afterwards, and for 20 minutes he chastised me for recording the phone call and not letting him know, but I asked him, 'Did we make you look bad?' and he said, 'Well, no.' He also said he didn't want to crush my career as a budding filmmaker."
The premise of the black-and-white film is simple: Rice and Bell want to, essentially, remake D.A. Pennebaker's 1965 black-and-white Dylan doc Don't Look Back. They want to interview Dylan (to whom Rice, from certain angles, shares an uncanny resemblance) but are turned back, repeatedly, by Rosen. They decide perhaps they can snag a quick chat with Dylan at his concert at Amherst; till then, they head for New York City and re-enact a few scenes from Don't Look Back (they also weave in footage from the original, much to Pennebaker's satisfaction and Rosen's chagrin). They stand in front of a guitar store and repeat Dylan's words ("They don't make guitars like this in the States"); they try to rent Dylan's first apartment in New York, which is unavailable; and they stand in front of Café Wha? and repeat the first words he ever uttered on its stage. As the two wrote in a brief summary included with the film, they had seen Pennebaker's film and "couldn't shake the Bob Dylan we found there"; they became "fascinated by the mysterious power of the film [and] obsessed with the image of the young Dylan." And so they picked up a camera and went looking for Bob.
Their obsession becomes contagious: They don't know when to quit, nor do you want them to. At one point, Bell even sends a letter to Jesse Dylan, one of Bob's sons, who calls back and leaves his number. When Jesse and Bell finally touch base, Bell explains himself ("We're sort of researching the past through Don't Look Back. We're trying to figure out what it was like. We're sort of obsessed with that movie"), only to have Jesse tell him to read Greil Marcus' Invisible Republic (about the making of Dylan and The Band's Basement Tapes) and then send him back to Rosen. The look on Bell's face is heartbreaking: He's come so close, only to realize just how far away from the icon he really is.
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The closest they come to touching Dylan is when they brush past the hem of history by interviewing Pennebaker, from whom they garner invaluable truths that have nothing to do with Bob. "How do you go about getting access to the things you want to film?" Rice asks Pennebaker, who now looks a little like a kindly professor. His response: "You ask people." Of Dylan, he says little: "His strength is he knows what he's worth," Pennebaker says, which is just enough. Like us, Rice and Bell only see Dylan from afar: They sneak a camera into his Amherst concert and bring back only silent, black-and-white footage of the middle-aged Dylan, who does battle with his younger self seen in concert footage lifted from Don't Look Back.
Rice and Bell made the film while taking a class with Ross McElwee, who made such documentaries as 1986's Sherman's March and 1997's Six O'Clock News. McElwee cautioned the duo about how personal documentaries will "ruin your life," if only because once you turn the camera on yourself, the unblinking eye becomes relentless, merciless. "It ruins a lot of moments for you," Rice admits. "You have to be prepared at any moment to turn the camera on, and it just wears you down." But the filmmakers realized it was worth it when they saw the movie: Look Back is an homage not only to Dylan and Pennebaker, but to obsession itself.
For now, you will see the movie only on the festival circuit; Rice says there have been inquiries from the likes of MTV, VH1, and the Independent Film Channel, but it's likely that clearance issues are keeping it off the airwaves. "Or maybe they think it's some rough shit," Rice says. Sometimes, though, he thinks they ought to just sell it or release it and deal with whatever hell Dylan's people and Sony Music might throw at them. There are worse ways, after all, to garner publicity.
"We'd just shoot the legal proceedings and make a feature," Rice says. "That might not be bad."