Considered amongst the very greatest documentaries ever made and selected by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant,” D.A. Pennebaker‘s veritable direct cinema portrait of Bob Dylan on his 1965 tour of England is an undisputed masterpiece. Yet, after Pennebaker completed the film, he almost gave up hope of finding a distributor. In the end, the film opened at the Presidio Theater in San Francisco, then known mostly for showing porn, to rave reviews and flocks of crowds hungry to meet Bob Dylan, or a version of Dylan, riding a wave of creative energy so quick that he’s bored and already reaching for the next thing. Its no wonder why Pennebaker named the film Dont Look Back, after a quote by Satchel Paige – “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.”
Still rocking the solo song man, guitar, harmonica and a pair of mics gig (the last tour he would perform as such), Dylan appears before Pennebaker and his jury-rigged, ultra portable Auricon camera as a kaleidoscope of contradictions, ultra cool behind perfectly fitting shades and a cloud of smoke, playfully confrontational in every interaction with the press, gleefully free-wheeling on the streets of London in hot pursuit and supremely focused, politically astute, emotionally aloof, astoundingly gifted. Each of these facets of his being flash before the artfully zooming lens with a knowing wink, an awareness of mild irking vanity and an effortless presentation of personality. The man was born with poetry in his heart and made for the cinema. And yet, he’s not the only personality leaping from the screen. Joan Baez, Donovan, Alan Price, Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman and his road manager Bob Neuwirth each find themselves pivot pawns in Dylan’s on screen attack on London.
At the time, Pennebaker wanted to make a film centering around music that wasn’t a concert doc and after a few days of shooting realized that Dylan’s way of being, the way he spoke, his way of reacting to any given situation was that of a poet, not merely an ongoing performance of a talented performer, and he wanted to capture that essence on film. Much to the surprise of everyone, he seems to have done just that. The film encapsulates Dylan’s youthful cool, while lyrically portraying the hurry up and wait, perform, party and repeat nature of tour – the tedium of facing the press, the increasing frenzy of public attraction, the beauty of inspired musical creation, the tension of public performance and even the business dealings that go into booking appearances and managing the escalation of hotel room chaos.
Pennebaker has an unparalleled eye for on the fly zoomed in cloth-ups and whip panned reframing, gliding from one moment to another related, but new and surprising image and idea without cuts. A prime example is the final image of Dylan alone in a beam of light in the enormous cave of Royal Albert Hall – the shot appears from behind and above, but then the camera slowly zooms out, revealing the astounding expanse of shadow and a single pillar of light illuminating the performer before he concludes and bows out. The film is full of these astonishingly murky images, now racked with historical content and pop culture references. Partially an unconscious critique of fame and the type of chameleon in transition type of person necessary for such a beloved role, Dont Look Back is an odd, super stylish and still wildly raw forging of an American icon on the world stages of London.
I can’t think of a single disc Blu-ray release more thoroughly stacked. Centered around Pennebaker’s cleaned up, crisp, grainy and inky as all get out Dont Look Back, it also come with its feature follow-up, a series of three shorts produced in his early career, interviews, commentaries, documentaries and so much more! Plus, the sound, so pivotal to a film featuring a ton of footage of Bob Dylan in his developmental prime, is as clear as it ever will be and live performances especially shine. Packaged in a matte slipcase and bound as a digipack with booklet, the release is a class act all around.
Audio Commentary with Pennebaker and tour manager Bob Neuwirth
Recorded in 1999, the track is a bit flimsy with plenty of lulls in conversation, despite the warm relationship between the two. Yet, when the two are on a roll there some story gems to be had.
Completed by Pennebaker in 2006, this new feature length doc is constructed wholly from the unused Dont Look Back footage. It doesn’t look as great as the original feature and it doesn’t reek of that same iconically edited zest, but it is essentially more of the same. 65 min
Interview with Bob Dylan
This brief audio excerpt from a 2000 interview with Bob Dylan for Scorsese’s documentary No Direction Home is paired with outtakes from Dont Look Back. 4 min
Early Pennebaker Shorts
Included within are Daybreak Express (1953 – 5 min), an incredible Vertov-esque city symphony synced to a speedy Duke Ellington track, Baby (1954 – 6 min), which documents a trip to the zoo with his daughter, and Lambert & Co. (1964 – 14 min), which Pennebaker claims drew him to the documentation of more musically orientated subjects.
It Starts With Music
An excellent new documentary produced by Criterion about the evolution of Pennebaker’s filming style, featuring the filmmaker himself, along with his close collaborator Chris Hegadus and others. 29 min
A Conversation between Pennebaker and Neuwirth
Speaking at length about their work together, the two reminisce about how they came to know each other, the time they spent together on tour and the projects they worked on in the wake of Dont Look Back. 34 min
Snapshots from the Tour
A series of never-before-seen outtakes from Dont Look Back. 26 min
Interview with musician Patti Smith
Smith recounts how great of an impact on her life both Dylan and the film left. 14 min
Conversation between music critic Greil Marcus and Pennebaker
Shot in 2010, this relaxed convo sees Marcus prompting some fascinating debate on Dylan and the intentions behind the film. 18 min
Alternate Version of the Film’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” Cue Card Sequence
Dylan and Pennebaker lensed three versions of the famed Dont Look Back cue card intro – one appeared in the film, one appeared in Pennebaker’s 65 Revisited, and this one, featured an uncredited Allen Ginsberg. 2 min
Audio Recordings of Dylan songs Not Used in the Film
A set of five tracks recorded on tour for the film that didn’t have video to match, including 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.
Constructed wholly from the iconic cue card intro and says everything you need to know. 2 min
Featuring an elegantly written essay by critic and poet Robert Polito, the booklet is lined with promotional posters, flyers and photos from both the film and the tour it documents. It also briefly explains why the film’s title is oddly missing an apostrophe.
I’m still unsure of which Pennebaker picture I like best, but I think with this ultra slick release of Dont Look Back and the wealth of supplemental material that comes in tow, his portrait of Dylan might be nosing ahead. Its unlikely the film has ever looked or sounded this great, and The Criterion Collection’s immaculate treatment of the material is evident in every nook and cranny of the release. For doc fans, this is an absolute must own release, among the best of the year. Buy with supreme confidence, folks.
Film Review: ★★★★½/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Review: ★★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆