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Savant Review:


Don't Look Back
Docurama / NewVideo
1967 / B& W / 1:37 / 96 m.
Starring Bob Dylan, Donovan, Joan Baez, Alan Price, Albert Grossman
Cinematography Howard Alk, Jones Alk, D.A. Pennebaker
Production Designer James D. Bissell
Music performed by Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Donovan, Alan Price
Produced by John Court and Albert Grossman
Written, Edited and Directed by D.A. Pennebaker

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The man who turned pop music on to socially-consicious poetry is one of those legendary icons that make their noise in the world so loud, they sometimes pass on without the world getting a real look at them.  Thanks to this film, Bob Dylan doesn't have to be remembered as an aged rocker on the 2001 Oscar broadcast, the one doing the Vincent Price imitation.  Those of us who don't read about rock n'roll and didn't subscribe to Rolling Stone won't be left out in the dark with this DVD: It can boast some great extras, including a commentary by the filmmaker that fills in all the gaps between Dylan's 'cool world' and the one we civilian squares live in.


In 1965, Bob Dylan goes from one English city to another playing his last acoustic tour, with a small but colorful entourage in tow: Albert Grossman, his manager, Bob Neuwirth, a friend from the states, performers Joan Baez and the new-to-the scene Donovan, and recently-estranged Animals drummer Alan Price.  They practice, party, fend off reporters with elliptical questions, and deal with irate hotel personnel and drunken Northerners (sorry, Mr. Broughton).  We see very candid settings where Grossman and another showbiz booker play telephone games to knock up the price on Dylan's appearances.  Many snatches of music are heard in between Dylan's frequent hectoring outbursts at journalists.

Don't Look Back is hardcore cinema verité in its original '60s sense, with the then-new 16mm cameras that didn't have to be physically attached to their sound-recorders, and faster filmstocks that could be used without lights.  Filmmakers were able to follow their docu subjects with ease, producing intimate hand-held moving-picture portraits.  From the perspective of 2001, this is what A Hard Day's Night seems to be, when in reality it's just Richard Lester emulating the look of cinema verité.  D.A. Pennebaker's feature, filmed by invitation of Dylan's manager, can be as crude as some of these films get.  One view of Joan Baez singing in a hotel room can be described as a grainy grey smear on a grainy black smear.   Yet there are shots with three people, a cameraman and a driver crammed into a smallish English car that have a perfect feeling of 'being there.'

Savant watched the film raw once, and then listened to Pennebaker's commentary, which fully illuminated a raft of questions about the show.  Pennebaker admits that true verité subjectivity was and is a myth.   He and his one or two-person crew had to 'inhabit' Dylan's inner world to photograph it.  They weren't flies on the wall but participants - and the way Dylan and his hipsters dominated the 'scene', they'd have been tossed if the room thought they weren't cool.

Penn says the 'actors' directed the film more than he did.  They were very conscious of the camera and very hip on the idea of providing cool material for it.  Dylan definitely 'performed', or as Pennebaker tells it, 'was on' every time the camera rolled.  But who isn't 'on', not just when a camera is rolling, but whenever we're in public?  By letting Dylan pull what little games he might, assuming he's not completely lying to the camera, we do at least see a sincere portrait of how he thinks he sees himself.

The Dylan we do see is far from flattering.  He's quiet one moment and pushy the next.   He openly baits reporters who ask vague questions in vain hope of 'drawing him out.'  He can be something of a bully, and there's definitely a macho tone to the way he and his hepcats hold court: as Joan Baez makes an exit, somebody tries to shake her up with a crude comment about her supposedly see-through blouse.  Dylan goes ballistic on a mild-mannered reporter, accusing him and the whole Time magazine commercial media world of being terrible phonies - and then immediately flounders in stammering evasion when the reporter asks him what HE thinks the truth is.  A 'science student' (identified as a music producer in later life) gets involved in one fairly fruitless exchange, where Dylan pretty much throws everything asked back in the kid's face.  The portrait of Dylan we eventually get is not of some abusive creep, but instead of a poet who doesn't want to talk about his poetry, needs publicity from the system, yet has a firm conviction that the establishment needs to be verbally assaulted at every opportunity.  Curiously, when asked if he believes in God, his answer is an unqualified 'no' ... He did go through a total Born Again phase in the '80s, if I'm not mistaken.

Also drifting through the film (according to the IMDB) are John Mayall and Marianne Faithful, who Savant didn't spot.  I made one blonde sitting in an empty Albert Hall as Faithful, until the commentary informed me otherwise.  Beat icon Allen Ginsberg shows up in dialogue, but also appears in person standing by a garbage can in the background of the famous 'flip the cue cards' scene done to 'Subterranean Homesick Blues.'  It was conceived as a proto-music video designed for use in the unsuccessful Scopitone movie juke boxes of the day.  A seemingly unexplained scene of Dylan singing on the back of a truck in America is included as well; Pennebaker clears up the question of its origin by telling us that it was a voter registration rally in Mississippi.  Experimental filmmaker Ed Emshwiller (Relativity) had shot it, heard Pennebaker was doing a Dylan movie, and just sent it along with his blessings.  Fat chance of anything like that happening today: "Yeah, it's Madonna.  Use it if ya wanna."

If Pennebaker couldn't 'direct' the shooting, his control is definitely in the editing.  Graduating from TV to the big screen with this film, he offers the observation that an extended shot of a grim-looking attendant at the Albert Hall opening some doors to a flood of somber, black-dressed Dylan fans 'would have been cut by Time-Life.'  His intention is to stay out of the way, trying NOT to edit where possible, and some of the more engrossing 'scenes' appear to take place in real time.  There's one priceless moment where some local honcho's wife, 'The Sheriff's Lady' drops by to welcome Dylan to her town, and to personally invite him to her 'mansion house' on his next visit.  In contrast to his almost combative relationship with everyone else, Dylan receives her meekly, like she was a rich aunt back in Wisconsin, behaving like a total square gentleman in the face of her veddy proper upperclass manners.  Since in reality she'd probably sooner be flogged than have these grotty lowlifes set foot on her carpets, much less run wild in her bedrooms, we have to assume that Dylan's roughshod technique with strangers was trumped by the matron's traditional condescending 'charm.'

Newvision and Docurama's DVD of Don't Look Back joins the ranks of other great documentaries given a new breath of life in the DVD format, where commentaries and extra text can provide not only context but an entire new dimension of facts and awareness.  Besides the commentary, extras include five original uncut tracks of Dylan performing for the film not heard before, an alternate flubbed take of the Cue Card scene, the trailer (a reprise of the Cue Card scene); a Dylan discography, and nice minibiographies of the cast and crew, down to most every 'who the heck is that' face that shows up guzzling beer or mugging with the stars.  The only drawback is the absence of a subtitle or closed captioning track, that would have helped when some of the dialogue gets hard to understand.  This is a great disc for both those who are and who aren't already big Bob Dylan followers, and it will hopefully get the attention it deserves.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
title rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Good
Sound: Good
Supplements: trailer, commentary, discography, bios, alternate cue card scene, five uncut Dylan audio performance tracks.
Packaging: Alpha case
Reviewed: April 29, 2001

A Note of clarification from helpful reader Gordon Thomas:
"To clear up the Marianne Faithful question.  As far as I know, she appears in just one scene and says not a word.  She can be glimpsed in the background, sitting in a chair listening, in the late night scene in the hotel room which opens with Baez singing Dylan's Percy's Song ("turn, turn to the rain and the wind") while Dylan types (reportedly his amphetamine-fueled "novel", Tarantula)."

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