Bob Dylan – Don’t Look Back, Blu-ray (2015)

Hi-resolution release of legendary 1967 documentary is a welcome addition to the Dylan legacy.

Cast: Bob Dylan, Donovan, Joan Baez, Alan Price, Donovan, Albert Grossman, Sally Grossman, Marianne Faithful, Allen Ginsburg, Fred Perry, Tom Wilson, Bob Neuwirth, Derrol Adams
Studio: Criterion 786 [11/24/15]
Director: D.A. Pennebaker
Video: 1.37:1 for 1080p HD, Black & White
Audio: PCM Mono
Length:  96 minutes
Extras: 65 Revisited a 2006 documentary by Pennebaker; Audio excerpt from a 2000 interview with Bob Dylan for the documentary No Direction Home, three short films by Pennebaker; New conversation between  Pennebaker and Neuwirth; Snapshots From The Tour; New interview with Patti Smith; Conversation between Greil Marcus and Pennebaker (2010); Alt. version of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” segment; Five audio recordings of Dylan not used in film; Trailer;  Booklet featuring an essay from Robert Polito
Rating:       Audio:  ****       Video: ****        Overall: *****

It took a long time for rock music to emerge on the documentary film scene. But, before Monterey Pop, Woodstock or The Last Waltz, there was Don’t Look Back. D.A. Pennebaker’s ground-breaking movie provided an insider’s glimpse of Bob Dylan and his impending cataclysmic effect on musical culture. Released in 1967, the documentary seemed to be an intentional repudiation of the Beatles fun-loving Hard Day’s Night. Dylan is portrayed in flattering and surprisingly unflattering ways, but the mystique of this mercurial visionary is never lost. The intentional rapid, choppy pace (hand held cameras) and a colorful entourage examine the world of rock stardom with mixed results. Don’t Look Back shaped the not quite defined rock culture as it moved forward.

Criterion has released a long-awaited Blu-ray of the film, with a plethora of extras that will surely thrill any Dylan aficionado. Nearly fifty years after its debut, Don’t Look Back remains a unique, fascinating look at early Dylan. Shot in black & white, Pennebaker chronicles the 1965 solo acoustic tour in England. The film opens with the iconic giant cue card filmed segment to “Subterranean Homesick Blues”. With Allen Ginsburg in the background alley, a prototype for music video became a cultural touchstone. The overall flow of the movie is lively with jagged shots. Dylan’s charismatic and contentious sides are on full display. He can be charming, but equally vicious to reporters (especially when they mention the terms protest or folk singer). But he is obsessed with newspaper coverage and even has someone reading a review to him in a car.

While there is a cast, this is purely a vehicle for Dylan. Alan Price (The Animals) has some humorous moments, but Joan Baez (with her angelic voice) is nearly ignored. Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman is compelling with his Zen-like demeanor. There is an amazing scene with Grossman negotiating (in real time) concert fees. The music is the real star. Versions of classic songs like “Ramona”. The Times They Are A Changin’”, “Gates Of Eden”, It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding”, and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” are performed (not in entirety) to receptive audiences. There is also an occasional dressing room or hotel jam. A highlight is Dylan and Baez singing “Lost Highway” which morphs into Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”. Dylan and Price jam on a blues number and the singer wins a “sing-off” with a beleaguered Donovan. Apparently Dylan is not too pleased (or polite with) his British ”counterparts”.

What makes this film special is the feeling of eavesdropping (although it seems logical that Dylan and his management influenced the content) on a private, conflicted artist. Also, there are many absorbing scenes that unfold with cinematic grace. Dylan can charm or eviscerate journalists. He is defiantly condescending to a Time reporter and accosts another reporter (“…did you ask the Beatles that?”). But he is charming when he wants to be with female fans or hotel managers. The ever-present dangling cigarette, leather jacket and sunglasses transform Dylan into a movie star. He is funny (“…can someone take that girl off our car…”). In true Dylan form, the viewer never gets a definitive insight into this temperamental legend.

The Blu-ray transfer is excellent considering the limited control of the film environments (and that it was shot in 16mm). The images are crisper, and the “underground” look is still there. The sound remains mono. The dialogue is clear and the musical segments are natural and vibrant.

–Robbie Gerson

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