Docurama // 1967 // 96 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Erich Asperschlager // April 26th, 2011
"Take what you need you think will last/ but whatever you wish to keep
you'd better grab it fast."
-- "It's All Over Now Baby Blue"
"Are you gonna see the concert tonight? It's gonna happen fast, and you're not gonna get it all, and you might even hear the wrong words. And afterwards I won't be able to talk to you. I've got nothing to say about these things I write. I just write them. I'm not gonna say anything about them. There's no great reason, no great message. If you wanna tell other people that, go ahead and tell 'em...they're just gonna think What's this TIME magazine telling us?; but you couldn't care less about that, either."
When documentary filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker was approached in 1965 by Albert Grossman to accompany his client on a three-week tour of England, he didn't know that much about Bob Dylan. The tour was anticipated by Dylan's fans, who were as eager to see the singer-poet perform live as the British press was to take their shot at the puzzling folk star. With a quiet, portable 16mm camera of his own design, Pennebaker caught it all on film, editing the footage into a loose, experimental documentary called Dont Look Back (purposely sans apostrophe). Routinely landing on top ten rock movie lists, it lands on Blu-ray in time to celebrate Dylan's 70th birthday in a set that's as messy, arresting, and alive as its subject.
Dont Look Back is an intimate peek into the life of a living, breathing artist. Pennebaker disappears into the background of whatever car, hotel suite, or green room Dylan and his entourage occupy. The candid nature of the film is all the more impressive considering how bulky and intrusive most cameras were at the time. Pennebaker's contributions not only to the technology but the artistry of documentary filmmaking cannot be overstated. He plunges the viewer into Dylan's personal space in a way that we take for granted in today's reality TV-soaked world.
The film is a loose collection of scenes connected only by the fact that they were filmed during Dylan's '65 tour. There's no real story, and relatively few on-stage performances. What little concert footage we see is cut short. There aren't any full songs, and most of the music in the film comes from the backstage noodlings of Dylan on a piano, guitar, or with then-girlfriend Joan Baez. Even though it represents a very small slice of Dylan's 50 plus-year career, it's still one of the most personal looks at an artist who was larger than life, even at age 24.
The Bob Dylan of Dont Look Back comes across as brash, self-obsessed, and aloof, barely registering the journalists and hangers-on who try to get close to him. In one memorable scene, Dylan casually tunes his guitar while berating an interviewer, challenging him without ever answering a question. Pennebaker loves showing Dylan dealing with the press. At times, he seems apathetic, but at other times he goes for the jugular. His anger at being pigeonholed by the media as folk singer and prophet is justified, but in the middle of a stream of consciousness rant aimed at a man from TIME magazine, it's hard not to side with the journalist when he asks, "Do you care about what you're saying?" Dont Look Back doesn't always show Dylan in the best light, but it paints a vivid picture of the mix of talent and ego necessary to thrive in the spotlight.
Dont Look Back on Blu-ray is true to its source material. Unfortunately, that source material isn't very good. This is a gritty, grimy film, shot in a way that makes every scene seem like a stolen moment. The image is soft, with heavy grain and debris -- hardly the kind of movie to show off your hi-def rig. Still, Dont Look Back is beautiful because of its unpolished feel. Blu-ray is exceptionally good at making film look like film, and it definitely does here.
The 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio is just as raw, immediate, and impressive. Like Pennebaker's visual style, it brings the viewer into Dylan's world. On-stage or off, he's surrounded by music, and Dont Look Back has some rare and powerful performances by Dylan, and by Joan Baez, including a hotel room rendition of Hank Williams's "So Lonesome I Could Cry." Many of Dylan's best concert performances are available now thanks to Columbia's official "Bootleg" series, but Dont Look Back gives viewers a look at Dylan's stage persona that audio alone can't capture.
Dont Look Back on Blu-ray includes all of the bonus features from the recent deluxe DVD edition (minus the companion book), plus a brand-new interview with Pennebaker conducted by music critic Greil Marcus. Recorded in 2010, the 19-minute interview gives the filmmaker yet another chance to reflect on his best known movie -- and to repeat several stories you'll hear elsewhere in the bonus features, including one about the infamous hotel party scene where Dylan met his pseudo-rival Donovan. As it turns out, Dylan's musical smackdown could have been a whole lot worse.
For more Pennebaker, there's a full length audio commentary recorded with Dylan's road manager Bob Neuwirth, who's in the movie almost as much as Dylan. Their conversation is fun and informative, covering the project, the tour, and Dylan himself.
Next up, five full bonus performances recorded during the tour. Although audio-only, the inclusion of "To Ramona," "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll," Love Minus Zero/No Limit," "It Ain't Me Babe," and "It's All Over Now Baby Blue" are a welcome counterpart to the film's scattershot approach to Dylan's music.
Dont Look Back begins with the iconic proto music video for "Subterranean Homesick Blues," with Dylan standing in an alleyway, tossing away a stack of lyric cards in time with the rapid fire song. They tried filming it a few times, in a few locations. One of those alternate versions is included here.
The set also includes a DVD version of Pennebaker's 2007 documentary 65 Revisited. Although it's presented as outtakes from Dont Look Back, it's really a companion film. Going back to the raw footage after 40 years, Pennebaker is able to present the same events in a whole different way. Whereas Dont Look Back focuses on the tension between Dylan and his critics, 65 Revisited shows the artist's sweeter side, and has more music. It might not have the same teeth as the main feature, but it's a worthy addition. Even better, it comes with its own full-length Pennebaker-Neuwirth commentary.
Bob Dylan burst onto the musical scene, he defied classification. A poet who elevated songwriting, he stood apart from the parade of pretty pop stars splashed across the pages of music magazines. Although he came up through the New York folk scene, those same fans felt betrayed when he went electric. Nowhere is the disconnect between his artistry and fame more apparent than 1965 England. Dylan's wild hair and wilder ideas enchanted his young British fans almost as much as they baffled its upper class. D.A. Pennebaker captures that tension in Dont Look Back, marking a turning point for not only Dylan, but the world.
It ain't guilty, babe!
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame (1080p)
* DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 96 Minutes
Release Year: 1967
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Alternate Footage
* Bonus Performances
* IMDb: Dont Look Back
* IMDb: 65 Revisited