D.A. Pennebaker's 1967 documentary Dont Look Back (and it is Dont and not Don't) is an interesting and revealing look at a young Bob Dylan's 1965 tour of the UK but there's a fair bit more to this film than just simple concert footage and backstage clips of the musician dealing with managers and fans. This time around the camera almost seems to get inside Dylan's head as he deals with tour snags, creative issues, and his own increasingly bad attitude. While Dylan may, by modern standards, come across as an aging sixties icon with an unintelligible mumble, here he's very definitely got a fire inside of him and it doesn't seem to take too much to set him off. The film doesn't shy away from instances where he loses his temper and there's some rather revealing footage of tearing into reporters and tour managers and even band members. We also witness his increasing distance with Joan Baez, his then girlfriend with whom he was essentially breaking up with while this tour was in full swing.
The documentary kicks off with the iconic footage that was turned into the Subterranean Homesick Blues video, with a thin and scraggy haired Dylan flinging cards containing the lyrics of the song off camera into an empty alleyway, and from there we basically set out on the tour proper to witness some amazing live footage of the man in his prime alongside the aforementioned glimpses into his seemingly rather fragile psyche. You get the impression as this film plays out that Dylan is uncomfortable not only with the film crew that is following him around on tour but also with the very idea of his fame reaching massive proportions. This comes across not just in his body language and his mannerisms but also in the interviews he does and his interactions with the English press who were only too hungry for a piece of this up and coming young star. On the flip side of this, and adding to the series of contradictions that is Dylan, is his obvious obsession with reading anything and everything written about him by the very same media he's so quick to dismiss and flippant with in his dealings.
Here we see him interact on different levels of acceptance with fellow musicians - Donovan shows up at one point and Baez is obviously around a lot - and storming around and insisting on his way, again, contradicting the stereotypical folksinger persona that was built up around him and showing us that at this point he may not have been the down to earth guy he was so often portrayed as. Some of his temperament issues are understandable, as anyone would likely get frustrated by life on the road the way so many rock starts do, but not all of them and there are more than a few instances where Dylan comes off not so much as understandably agitated but as a bit of a jerk. This does, however, paint a very believably human portrait of the man.
Pennebaker's film sets out neither to smear its subject nor to put it on a pedestal and instead focuses on the person behind the name as much as is possible. Dylan shuts himself off from others here, cameras included, particularly when you get the impression that he is both overwhelmed and exhausted, made all the worse by the very obviously profit motivated actions of his manager, Albert Grossman. The end result is an interesting portrait of one of the greatest songwriters of a generation and an important part of American musical culture that is not just a look at his life and times but at what sort of impact he had on a generation of music fans so taken with his work. It's quite fascinating and if it's not always pretty, at least you get the impression that it tells it like it is. A very solid documentary and an equally solid collection of live performances, Dont Look Back is a pretty essential addition to any music fan's library.
Considering how it was shot, primarily on handheld 16mm cameras, Dont Look Back looks pretty good in this AVC encoded 1080p high definition transfer that preserves the film's original 1.33.1 fullframe aspect ratio. The black and white image does show some age related damage and the expected amount of moderate grain, but contrast is generally (though not always) fine and detail solid throughout. There's occasional instances where the dirt and blemishes are a bit distracting but this is at least a well authored release of some understandably low-fi material. Demo worthy? Nope, but good for what it is and more than DVD could offer.
The only audio option for the feature is an English language DTS-HD 2.0 Mono mix that, if a little flat, otherwise sounds very good. There are bits that sound clearer than others and those with large crowds tend to lose a bit to the background noise, but overall this is a solid track. The music sounds very good and you probably won't notice the occasional bit of hiss or the random pops unless you're actually listening for them. All in all, this is generally quite good, but again, you have to keep your expectations in check in regards to the elements available.
Director D.A. Pennebaker and tour manager Bob Neuwirth supply a remarkably informative audio commentary track for the film and they do a great job not just of covering Dylan's career at this point but also their involvement in the film, what was happening while the film was being made, the effect that it had on the people that it documents and how it fits, contextually speaking, in with a lot of Dylan's work from this period. There are some really interesting stories here that compliment the feature well and between this commentary and the documentary it plays over top of, Dylan fans are left with a really fascinating and thorough portrait of this period in his life.
Up next is a featurette entitled Greil Marcus interview with D.A. Pennebaker (HD, 17:48) in which the film's director is quizzed by the author about this particular project and of course its enigmatic subject. There are some interesting stories told here about what it was like on the road, getting this film made, and about interacting with Dylan. Also included here a Subterranean Homesick Blues Alternate Take (SD, 2:20) which is some footage of Dylan in a park with his cards in hand, and Audio Only DTS-HD lossless versions of five tracks: 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.
Interestingly enough, this release also includes a DVD release of 65 Revisited which D.A. Pennebaker made as a sort of follow up to Dont Look Back by using various outtakes and deleted bits of footage. There's not as much substance here as there is in the earlier feature but there's still some excellent footage included and Dylan fans will no doubt be happy to take it all in. There's a fair bit more footage with Joan Baez and bits and pieces of performances to enjoy. It's more than just an extended outtake real, as there's a good bit of context here and enough insight that this works quite well independently of the first movie. The extras on this second disc once again include a commentary track with Pennebaker and Bob Neuwirth where they discuss the editing process, putting this picture together, Pennebaker's intentions with the project, and dish more on dealing with Dylan during this period of his life. It would have been great to get this in HD as well, but that didn't happen - regardless, it makes a very nice companion piece and its inclusion here is quite welcome.
It's rare that a tour documentary offers as personal a look into a performing artist's psyche as Dont Look Back, which makes Pennebaker's film all the more interesting. Dylan was, in many people's minds, either at or fast approaching his peak while this movie was being made and so it not only offers us a look at where he was at personally and musically but also serves as an important snapshot of some very influential times in musical history. The Blu-ray looks and sounds about as good as anyone could probably hope for, and the inclusion of some eye opening and interesting extra features ensures that this one comes highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.