Why Bob Dylan’s ‘Eat the Document’ Was Shelved
Bob Dylan did not know or care about what was suitable for a television documentary in 1966. Having worked with director D.A. Pennebaker the previous year, capturing footage from his sold-out 1965 tour for what would become his first tour film, 1967's Don't Look Back, Dylan was ready to do it again - this time in full color.
His motorcycle accident in 1966 delayed production, and Dylan decided the new movie – titled Eat the Document – was too similar to the last one and chose to edit it himself, despite possessing no knowledge of how to properly do so.
"I don’t hold these movie people in too high a position," he said to Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner in 1969. "You know this movie, Don’t Look Back? Well, that splashed my face all over the world, that movie Don’t Look Back. I didn’t get a penny from that movie, you know … so when people say why don’t you go out and work and why don’t you do this and why don’t you do that, people don’t know half of what a lot of these producers and people, lawyers … they don’t know the half of those stories."
Assisted by someone who did know what they were doing, filmmaker Howard Alk, Dylan assembled a version of Eat the Document that proved to be too puzzling for ABC, which funded the project.
“What city are we in? What's happening?” network executives responded, according to Alk. ABC declined to air the movie because it believed audiences wouldn't understand it; Eat the Document wouldn't premiere until Feb. 8, 1971 at the Academy of Music in New York City.
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"It’s fast on the eye," is how Dylan put it. "I’d have to let you see it for yourself, to think about if it’s a good one. I don’t know if it’s a good one. For me, it’s too fast for the eye … but there are quite a few people who say it’s really good. Johnny Cash is in it. John Lennon‘s in it. The Band’s in it. … A lot of different people from the European capitals of the world are in it."
The Band, the Canadian group originally called the Hawks, shifted gears after previously working as rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins' backing band. After Dylan enlisted them in 1965 to back him on his U.S. tour, he called them again in 1966. They set themselves up behind Dylan and in front of the camera for Eat the Document, which featured several scenes of Dylan and the group's songwriter and guitarist Robbie Robertson writing songs in hotel rooms between shows. Cash made an appearance during a piano duet of his song "I Still Miss Someone."
But the most perplexing bit in the documentary showcases another familiar face, that of John Lennon, who recalled being filmed with a clearly delirious Dylan in the backseat of a cab in 1966.
"We were both in shades and both on fucking junk, and all these freaks around us and Ginsberg and all those people," Lennon recalled in an interview with Rolling Stone in 1971. "I was anxious as shit."
If Lennon was on edge, Dylan didn't seem to notice. He wanted the Beatles star in the documentary anyway. because ABC refused to show the film, and Eat the Document sat mostly untouched for several years.
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Lennon later said he'd "never seen it, but I’d love to see it. I was always so paranoid, and Bob said, 'I want you to be in this film.' He just wanted me to be in the film. I thought, 'Why? What? He’s going to put me down.' I went all through this terrible thing.
"In the film, I’m just blabbing off and commenting all the time, like you do when you’re very high or stoned," Lennon added. "I had been up all night. We were being smart alecks, it’s terrible. But it was his scene, that was the problem for me. It was his movie. I was on his territory, that’s why I was so nervous. I was on his session."
Though disjointed and unorthodox, Eat the Document highlighted another major stepping stone of Dylan's career: his shift from acoustic folk singer to plugged-in rocker. The move left many of his original fans feeling betrayed. Pennebaker managed to capture the infamous Manchester Free Trade concert on May 17, 1966, in which an audience member loudly shouts "Judas!" during Dylan's electric portion of the show.
Dylan pushed onward anyway. As his assistant editor Alk wrote in his program notes for the movie, Eat the Document was destined to be experimental, much like its creator.
“Instead of trying to re‐create the ‘real’ event, with a verite documentary approach, the editors looked for what each shot itself wanted to be," he later wrote. "Conservations unheld, events untranspired. Some real music, some not. Murder, villainy, travel, slavery and lust. We hope a real movie. Perhaps even a comedy.”
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