This year marks the 50th anniversary of Bob Dylan’s legendary 1965 tour of England, which was recorded in D.A. Pennebakbr’s landmark 1967 documentary Don’t Look Back. Tomorrow the Criterion Collection is celebrating the milestone with the release of DVD and Blu-ray editions of the film, both including numerous special features.
The eight-concert tour marked a turning point in Dylan’s career as it was his last as an acoustic solo artist. Pennebakbr’s 96-minute black-and-white film captures him performing such famous songs as “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” and “Subterranean Homesick Blues”—which famously opens the film with a music video-like sequence showing Dylan in the street holdng up cue cards and tossing them away while an uncredited Allen Ginsberg meanders about in the background.
Joan Baez, Donovan and Alan Price prominently appear and are credited, and Dylan is shown interacting with fans and in another famous scene with a hapless reporter from Time Magazine. Shot in Pennebaker’s groundbreaking “Direct Cinema” style, Don’t Look Back was highly influential when it came out and remains so 50 years after it was filmed.
“Is it 50 years? It makes sense because as a 13-year-old in Central Connecticut the chance of ever seeing Don’t Look Back in a local theater were slim and none,” incredulously recalls Ed McKeon, himself a documentary filmmaker and folk music director at WWUH-FM in West Hartford.
“I actually think the first time I caught a glimpse of it was a decade later in Madison, Wis., at a film society showing,” he says. “It was a revelation still. Dylan’s voice and lyrics had been magnetic North for this impressionable kid when he heard ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ blasting out of his dad’s Chevy Bel Air station wagon, and having my head spun around even though I was sitting in the ‘payback.’ To hear the song again and see Dylan tossing those cue cards in that London alleyway with Allen Ginsberg looking on made a powerful impression 10 years after I’d first heard the song.”
Don’t Look Back, McKeon continues, “impressed me for its ability to bring us behind the veil that Dylan erected to protect his poet’s soul from the ravages of fame. And Pennebaker successfully demonstrates that nothing, save [Dylan’s 1966] motorcycle accident, could have prevented fame, acclaim and notoriety from warping Dylan’s worldview. He makes it clear that in Dylan’s case, as in so many others, the warning ‘be careful what you wish for’ should be taken to heart.”
McKeon clearly remembers from his first viewing of the film “how badly Dylan treated Donovan.”
“I had been a huge Donovan fan, and to see him scorned and belittled by Dylan was disconcerting,” says McKeon. But he notes how “it’s always been an inspiration in the way a careful filmmaker can strike so closely to truth, even with an obtrusive camera in hand–and even with a prey as elusive as Bob Dylan.”
The new Criterion discs feature a restored digital transfer with newly restored monaural sound from the original quarter-inch magnetic masters, along with audio commentary from 1999 with Pennebaker and tour manager Bob Neuwirth.
Other bonus material includes 65 Revisited, a 2006 documentary directed by Pennebaker; an audio excerpt from an interview with Dylan from the 2005 documentary No Direction Home, cut to previously unseen outtakes from Don’t Look Back; a new documentary about the evolution of Pennebaker’s filming style from his 1950s avant-garde work to his ’60s musical documentaries and including an excerpt from the filmmaker’s footage of Dylan performing “Ballad of a Thin Man” during his 1966 electric tour; three Pennebaker short films; a new conversation between Pennebaker and Neuwirth about their work together from Don’t Look Back through Monterey Pop (1967) and beyond; photos from the tour and a new piece consisting of outtakes from the film; a new interview with Patti Smith about Dylan and the influence of Don’t Look Back in her life; a conversation between music critic Greil Marcus and Pennebaker from 2010; an alternate version of the “Subterranean Homesick Blues” cue card sequence; five uncut audio tracks of Dylan songs from the film; the film’s trailer; and an essay by critic and poet Robert Polito.
Like Smith and McKeon, music documentary producer/director Mick Gochanour (the 2012 release of Rolling Sones documentary Charlie Is My Darling–Ireland 1965 and Best Long Form Video Grammy winner Sam Cooke: Legend) cites Don’t Look Back as a huge influence.
“I loved it when I first saw it, but thought it was much more of a fly-on-the-wall approach,” says Gochanour. “But in retrospect I see it’s more constructed, and like it even more now that I’ve gone through the process myself.”
Gochanour is impressed both by the “great restoration” of the film and its “really cool and enlightening” commentary tracks with Pennebaker.
“I’ve interviewed him myself,” he says. “He’s very intellectual, and on the commentaries I’m kind of amazed how sharp his memory is and how visceral his analysis is of the things that were going on at the time. And I didn’t know how much setup they’d done in lighting and things: I thought it was all ‘run and gun,’ but a lot if it was staged–not rehearsed, but staged in that they all knew what they were doing and doing it for.”
Seeing Don’t Look Back now also gave Gochanour a different perspective on Dylan’s behavior.
“I didn’t think he was as scathing toward Donovan as I did at first,” he says, “and when I listened to Pennebaker I learned how smart that Time reporter actually was in the end: He was eviscerated by Dylan, but he didn’t write a bad review.”
Gochanour is left with “how lucid and sharp” Pennebaker is about the events surrounding Don’t Look Back, “and how political it got afterward,” he says.
“It was the beginning of the time when musicians had a voice in what was going on in the world and questioning everything,” he adds. “To revisit this in the words of the person who captured it is mind-boggling.”
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