Don’t Look Back
Directed by D.A. Pennebaker
Starring Bob Dylan (and friends)
You don’t have to be a Bob Dylan fan to appreciate or even enjoy this newly remastered 1967 film. Historically noteworthy as the first significant music documentary (director D.A. Pennebaker went on to chronicle the historic 1967 Monterey Pop festival and Depeche Mode), Don’t Look Back remains a mesmerizing look at an enigmatic figure, as well as a compelling time capsule back to the mid ’60s. Some perspective is important here; the year is 1965, this is Bob Dylan’s last solo acoustic tour, and he’s playing various British dates accompanied by a ragtag and inscrutable entourage including his manager Albert Grossman, fellow musicians Joan Baez, Animals’ keyboardist Alan Price, and Donovan, as well as tour road manager Bob Neuwirth. The cameras follow Dylan from town to town, doing press conferences, chatting, and often confronting fans as well as reporters, playing impromptu jams, writing songs, and of course, performing a series of gigs that culminate in two sold out shows at London’s Royal Albert Hall. But the music plays a secondary role to peering behind the veneer of Dylan, a man who rarely let his guard down. That the movie isn’t successful in doing that is no fault of the filmmaker. Dylan was a canny manipulator of people and especially the press even then, but you do get an overriding feel for how his mind worked as he confrontationally debates a young science student and fledgling rock reporter (who we hear on the audio commentary was Terry Ellis, later the honcho of Chrysalis Records), and a writer from Time magazine. While this doesn’t sound particularly stimulating, it is. Dylan had already recorded, but had not released Bringing It All Back Home, his first electric album, and his discomfort with playing “Blowin’ in the Wind” every night in its original unplugged arrangement is palpable. He does preview some “new” acoustic tunes like “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” but wild rockers such as “Maggie’s Farm” and “Outlaw Blues” are conspicuously missing. Still, he was sharp witted, smart, cunning, and bitingly satiric even at the age of 24. His perennially unkempt mop of hair, leather sports jacket, ever present sunglasses and pasty complexion was a disguise that hid a rampant talent yet to peak that even he wasn’t quite aware of. The movie has no overdubbed audio track–what you hear is what went down in real time–and although this is primitive filmmaking by most standards, there is a lively ebb and flow that perfectly captures its inscrutable subject, and the ongoing circus atmosphere of a “rock” tour. The DVD not only cleans up the video, but it adds a running commentary/conversations on the alternate track from filmmaker Pennebaker and Neuwirth that provides intriguing background information into the filming process, scenes and people Dylan encounters. Five previously unreleased audio tracks are included for collectors, and an outtake of the famous cue card video for “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” Rudimentary compared to the rock documentaries it spawned, such as Woodstock and Gimme Shelter, Don’t Look Back is essential viewing for any music or film lover, and an entertaining look at a fleeting few weeks in the life of one of this century’s most important figures.