OK, so just for a moment, put yourself in his Cuban-heeled boots. Imagine you’re exceptionally intelligent, exceptionally witty, exceptionally talented, and exceptionally self-conscious. Imagine the media has yoked you with the responsibility of being the voice of your generation and incessantly bombards you with inane questions like “What is your real message?” Imagine the media is also trying to find the next you, and when it does so, it’s a meek young man singing a fairly inane love song. Imagine you’re also a 23-year old kid. Well, then you might have come off a bit the way Bob Dylan comes off in Don’t Look Back.
D.A. Pennebaker’s document of Dylan’s 1965 London tour is not flattering to our little idol, but how could it be under such circumstances? How could Dylan not have been so acidic, so mean when confronted with a flailing student journalist or Donovan offering “To Sing for You” (with all due respect to Don, who made some fabulous music, coming to Dylan with his particular song is like facing off against a howitzer armed with a peanut—and Donovan does put in a specific request for Dylan’s landscape-razing anthem “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”).
Don’t Look Back is not comfortable viewing, but it is truthful in its refusal to whitewash or romanticize Dylan’s edginess at a time that must have been both exhilarating and intensely challenging for him. Its truth is what makes Don’t Look Back a superb documentary, and the shards of song scattered throughout keep our subject in perspective. When Dylan is singing stuff as monumental as “It’s All Over Now”, “Subterranean Homesick Blues” (in a super-influential music video sequence), and “Only a Pawn in Their Game” (in a flashback to 1963), it’s hard not to understand his egotism or the media’s insistence on making him his generation’s voice. In retrospect, it’s also hard not to think those journalists were at least a little right, and when we hear the kind of fatuous nonsense a reviewer phones in to his periodical after watching Dylan live, it’s hard not to sympathize with Dylan’s irritation with those journalists.
Pennbaker didn’t just capture candid footage of Dylan doling out tongue-lashings and powerful music. He also shot it beautifully despite the hand-held, minimal-set-up camerawork that lends the film its fly-on-the-wall flavor (or as journalist Greil Marcus tells Pennebaker, its “porno movie” aesthetic). The black and white picture is sometimes low contrast (though not in concert where Dylan appears as if etched in black velvet), but it has a soft and natural look that is quite atmospheric. Criterion’s new blu-ray of Don’t Look Back captures it cleanly and authentically.
Copious bonus materials that pay tribute to both Dylan and Pennbaker will keep you busy for hours. The Dylan-centric pieces include a brief audio outtake from Martin Scorsese’s doc No Direction Home in which the singer discusses the simplicity of the filming, how he got used to constantly having cameras poked in his face, and his popularity in England. There is a selection of five songs that play over a single still of him on stage that expand the musical content that isn’t the feature film’s main focus. The song selection is great—“It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”, “Love Minus Zero/No Limit”, “To Ramona”, “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”, and “It Ain’t Me Babe”—and so is the audio quality, but the lack of a “play all” option is baffling. There’s also a very cool tribute from Dylan super-fan Patti Smith, who talks about how both Dylan and his tour manager, Bob Neuwirth, helped her own rock-star career.
Neuwirth, who plays a prominent role in Don’t Look Back, gets his own sit-down with D.A. Pennebaker in a new half-hour featurette and an audio commentary from 1999, but it is the director who dominates most of the other bonuses, which include a half-hour documentary, an interview with Greil Marcus, and a selection of three of Pennebaker’s short films: “Baby”, which finds his toddler daughter romping at the zoo, “Lambert & Co.”, which chronicles the audition of a jazz vocal combo, and “Daybreak Express”, a color sketch of sunrise in Manhattan that is much more stylized than any of his other naturalistic films included on the disc. Appropriately, music plays a key part in all of these shorts.
Finally, there is an alternate version of the “Subterranean Homesick Blues” video shot at a park instead of a back alley (Pennebaker selected the right take for his film), and most significantly, an hour and a half of Don’t Look Back outtakes included in a feature called 65 Revisted ported over from the 2006 DVD and a new sampling called Snapshots from the Tour. Dylan is sometimes on the sidelines when the new outtakes are at their most interesting, like when Joan Baez and Marianne Faithfull sing a spellbinding duet of “As Tears Go By” or Albert Grossman, Alan Price, and another member of Dylan’s entourage debate the distinctions between blues, jazz, and gospel. The outtakes on both featurettes also include several full performances of songs (as well as a partial solo preview of “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry”) and Dylan being more sincere with journalists, fans, and friends than we see him being in the final cut. These outtakes are essential companions to the feature, unmasking the artist and the human being so often disguised in Don’t Look Back.