Dont Look Back Blu-ray Review

You have to be a very hardcore Bob Dylan fan to really enjoy D.A. Pennebaker’s groundbreaking documentary, Dont Look Back (yes, that’s the correct spelling). Not only would you have to know and love his songs, but you would have to know something about Dylan as a person and a phenomenon, and about what was going on around him and within him as he toured England in the spring of 1965.

Fortunately, I qualify. As the biggest Dylan fan I personally know, I find it riveting. It doesn’t really show or explain the many changes he was going through at that time. But in its fly-on-the-wall directness, it captures the insular world he had built for himself, and gives you a glimpse of the extremely conflicted and complex genius he was like just before turning 24.

At this time, Dylan was transitioning from folk music–all acoustic and no other musicians–to full-throttle rock and roll. His first album to include rock songs, Bringing It All Back Home, had just been released. And yet this was a folk tour–with no instruments beyond Dylan’s acoustic guitar, his harmonicas, and his voice. He sings many of the “protest” songs that had launched his career: “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” and, of course, “Blowing in the Wind.” And yet, in the movie, we’re told that “Subterranean Homesick Blues”–the rocker that opens the then-new album–is climbing up the British charts.

“Subterranean Homesick Blues” also opens the movie in one of the most famous precursors of the rock video: As that influential song plays on the soundtrack, Dylan stands shyly and somewhat embarrassed in an alley holding up cue cards with bits of the lyrics–and some puns built around the lyrics .

That is, as near as I can tell, the only staged scene in the film. For the rest of its 96 minutes, Pennebaker’s camera and microphone follow Dylan and his entourage as they hang out in hotel rooms, ride in chauffeured cars, and play music for their own enjoyment. Occasionally, we see a bit of a concert.

The movie shows Dylan as a smart, funny, charismatic, and basically decent person interested in everyone he meets. But not always. Sometimes he’s a first-class jerk. That shouldn’t be too surprising. Here’s a very young man who has become accustomed to being called a genius. Not just a singer/songwriter, but cast uneasily as a poet and a prophet. He can be cruel so casually that one wonders if he knows how he’s behaving. There’s one scene with a Time Magazine reporter that makes your skin crawl.

The film shows us quite a bit of Joan Baez, who came with him on the tour but was never invited onstage. This tour marked the end of their professional and romantic relationship. They don’t seem to like each other much here. We see the moment when she walks out of his life, ending a long professional and romantic relationship. Oddly, she shows up in two scenes right after her walkout.

But his entourage included more than Baez. We see a lot of manager Albert Grossman, close friend and tour manager Bob Neuwirth, and British musician and former Animal Alan Price. Donovan pops up, as well.

This isn’t really a concert movie. It shows him performing occasionally, but never for one complete song. His greatest musical moment is a performance of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” played privately in a hotel room.

Nor is it a conventional, information-filled documentary. There’s no narration, and if you don’t recognize the people on screen, you probably won’t figure out who they are.

Pennebaker captured a brief moment when the ’60s were about to become the 60’s, and the crazy world one of the most influential figures of that transition. Dylan would tour England again in 1966. But then he’d play electric guitar and front a rock quintet that would eventually become The Band. He was booed in those concerts, but he changed music.

First Impression

Rather than the usual Criterion plastic, Dont Look Back comes packaged in a cardboard slip cover containing a cardboard disc holder. Inside that you’ll find the disc (of course) and a fairly substantial booklet.

The bulk of the booklet is taken up by an excellent essay by Robert Polito, along with various images–photos, tickets, headlines, and so on–from the tour. It also contains credits for the film and the disc, and Criterion’s traditional About the Transfer.

As with all Criterion Blu-rays, the home screen has menus on the left. When you remove the disc, your Blu-ray player will save a bookmark, and give you an option to return to where it left off the next time you insert the disc.

How It Looks

I’m all for 4K scans of original negatives, carefully transferred to a 1040p Blu-ray. But Dont Look Back was shot on fast, very grainy 16mm film, so this particular 4K/1080p transfer doesn’t show you a lot of details or textures because they simply weren’t there on the negative. What it does show you is a lot of grain.

On the other hand, all that grain makes the image authentic. You can’t mistake it for anything but a cinema verite documentary from the 1960s.

The image is pillarboxed to 1.371, approximately right for the 16mm frame.

How It Sounds

The LPCM 1.0 24-bit soundtrack is very good. Although it’s mono, the single track captures and reproduces the music beautifully. And since the music is seldom more than one person singing and playing guitar, you don’t really need moretracks.

And the Extras

This disc comes with a lot of extras–by my reckoning, more than five hours worth. You’ll learn more about D.A. Pennebaker here than you’ll learn about Bob Dylan.

  • Commentary: Recorded in 1999 by Pennebaker and Neuwirth. This provides the narration that the movie lacks.
  • Dylan on Dont Look Back: four minutes, 1080i. Clips and outtakes, with Dylan narrating, talking mostly about how he got used to the camera and soon didn’t think about it.
  • 65 Revisted: 65 minutes, 1080p. Another movie edited in 2006 from footage not used in the original movie. It has some dull moments, but is generally very good–and it has full songs. It closes with an alternate take of the Subterranean cue card bit, this on a rooftop instead of an alley.
  • Greig Marcus and D. A. Pennebaker: 18 minutes, 1080i. A conversation with journalist and cultural critic Marcus. Interesting, but much of it you will get from other extras.
  • Subterranean Homesick Blues” (alternate take): two minutes, 1080p. Yet another version of the cue card bit, this one shot in a garden. By the way, all of the versions have Allen Ginsberg in the background, on the left, talking to someone.
  • Additional Audio Performances: Five songs recorded during the tour, with nothing on screen except a photo of Dylan singing. The songs are “It Ain’t Me Babe,” “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” “Love Minus Zero/No Limit,” “the Lonesome Deagth of Hattie Carroll, and “To Ramona. “
  • D. A. Pennebaker: A Look Back: Four separate short films:
    • It Starts with Music: 29 minutes; 1080p. Pennebaker and some of his collaborators/assistants talk about how he developed his technique. Very interesting. “Narration to me is the enemy of theater.”
    • Daybreak Express: Five minutes; 1080p. Pennebaker’s first film, shot in 1953 but not completed until ’57. A visual love letter to NYC, set appropriately to Duke Ellington music. Also provided: a 3-minute introduction.
    • Baby: Six minutes; 1080p. Another early film, of Pennebaker’s young daughter at the zoo, filmed in 1954. Pennebaker considers this a breakthrough in what type of filmmaker he would become, but on its own, it’s just a home movie set to some nice music.
    • Lambert & Company: 14 minutes; 1080p. A Pennebaker film showing jazz vocalist Dave Lambert auditioning a new group for a record that was never recorded. Nice music, and it’s interesting to see how it’s created in the studio.
  • D.A. Pennebaker and Bob Neuwirth: 34 minutes; 1080p. The two of them talking about their work together, which started but didn’t stop with Dont Look Back. They talk, with some clips from the films they worked on together. The film ends with a clip from a 1971 Neuwirth concert which proves that Neuwirth’s talent was really in helping other musicians.
  • Snapshots from the Tour: 26 minutes; 1080p. More outtakes. It’s uneven, but with a lot of music played in hotel rooms.
  • Patti Smith: 14 minutes; 1080p. Recorded just this summer. Smith talks about Dylan as an idol and eventually a friend.
  • Trailer: You guessed it, they advertised the film with The Subterranean Homesick Blues cue card bit.

And none of these extras answers the big question: Who stole the apostrophe in the title?

Sons wrestle with their past in What Our Fathers Did: A Nazi Legacy

B+ Documentary

Written by Philippe Sands

Directed by David Evans

How do you go through life with the knowledge that your father, arguably your loving father, was a mass murderer? This unsettling documentary offers two reactions: You can denounce your father for the monster that he was, or you can live in denial. This troubling documentary shows us both approaches.

Hans Frank was Hitler’s personal lawyer and eventually became Governor-General of occupied Poland. Guilty of millions of murders, he was tried, convicted, and executed at Nuremberg. His son Niklas grew to hate and condemn his father. He almost feels as if he must do penance for his father’s sins.

Otto von Wächter wasn’t as successful a Nazi as Hans Frank, but he did well for himself. Working under Frank, he administered Kraków and Galicia. Hundreds if not thousands were killed by people under his command. After the war, he eluded capture and died of natural causes in 1949. His son Horst insists that he had nothing to do with the Holocaust or any other crimes–despite considerable evidence to the contrary.

Over the years, Niklas Frank and Horst von Wächter got to know each other and become friends. But their relationship was always marred by their very different approaches to their similar family histories.

Philippe Sands’ grandfather was the only survivor of a large family of Galicia Jews. Yes, that Galicia–both Hans Frank and Otto von Wächter were complicit in the slaughter of his family. The British-born Sands is the film’s author, interviewer, and narrator.

Sands’ interviews with both Niklas and Horst comprise the bulk of What Our Fathers Did (I’m using the subjects’ first names to not confuse them with their horrible fathers). They’re interviewed in their current homes, their childhood homes, in front of a live audience in England, and in the locations of their fathers’ crimes. The interviews are all conducted in English; luckily, both subjects are fluent in the language.

These various locations keep the film visually interesting. So does the archival footage, which includes home movies, family photos, and what I assume are Nazi-filmed moviesfrom the Warsaw or Krakow ghetto–some of it in color (yes, the Germans had color film). These films were shot before things got too bad, and it’s strange to see these very skinny people putting up the face of a normal life, and even smiling and waving at the camera. They don’t yet know what’s in store.

And then there’s the story of Niklas’ mother going “shopping” in the ghetto. It was a great way to go bargain hunting.

As the film continues, Horst becomes less and less likeable. Nothing will get him to admit that his father was guilty of mass murder. For every piece of evidence, he finds an excuse. At his lowest point, he says that no one ever accused his father of a crime “except a few Jews, because of the Holocaust.” By the end, Niklas is calling Horst a Nazi and is re-evaluating their friendship.

The film’s most shocking sequence happens in Galicia. Some local Ukrainians take part in a ceremony honoring the fallen German soldiers. Many wear Nazi uniforms and swastika jewelry. When they’re told that the son of Otto von Wächter is in their presence, they treat him like a returning hero. Horst just beams.

These days, it’s hard to find a fresh documentary approach to the Holocaust. But in the stories of Niklas Frank and Horst von Wächter, Philippe Sands and director David Evans found a strong one.

The Sociopath in the Machine: My review of Alex Gibney’s Steve Jobs documentary

Biographical documentary

Directed by Alex Gibney

There’s no doubt about it. Steve Jobs changed the world. Even if you don’t own a single Apple product, your computer, tablet, and smartphone were influenced by Job’s work and inspiration.

But Jobs the man was a first-class jerk. At the start of his career, he cheated his friend and partner, Steve Wozniak, out of nearly $3,000. As his personal worth jumped from $10 million to $200 million, he lied and fought in court to not pay childcare for his daughter (the mother, his former girlfriend, was on welfare at the time). Able-bodied, he liked to park his silver sports car in handicap parking spaces.

He could get away with it. He was Steve Jobs.

Director Alex Gibney (Going Clear, Taxi to the Dark Side, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) starts this multifaceted documentary with a question: Why did so many people who never met Steve Jobs mourn so deeply when he died?

He was brilliant, mercurial, and charismatic. He could rethink the human-machine interface, hire the best designers and engineers and push them to create his vision, then step out on stage and make everyone in the audience desperately want to buy his latest toy. He built a cult around Apple and around himself.

Many of those designers and engineers learned to hate him. He worked them relentlessly and drove them with anger and insults. Few stayed with him long. One member of the original Macintosh team, interviewed for the film, tells us that he lost his wife and his children in the years he worked for Jobs.

Gibney can’t cover Jobs’ entire life in two hours, but he covers quite a bit. We learn about his interest in Zen–which seemed to be very shallow, and discover he was, like me, a vegetarian and a Bob Dylan fan (Dylan’s songs dominate the soundtrack). We discover how he bullied reporters and editors to control his and his company’s public image.

We also learn how he did everything he could to keep his immense fortune to himself. Unlike Bill Gates (only mentioned once in the film), he didn’t believe in helping others. When he returned to Apple in the late 90s, he killed policies that encouraged employee philanthropy.

The last section of the film, of course, deals with his long and largely secret struggle with cancer.

Whether you worship Jobs, despise him, or couldn’t care less, he changed the world that you live in. And Gibney–one of the best documentarians working today–has created an excellent, no-holds-barred, yet empathetic biography of a brilliant man utterly lacking in empathy.

Oh, and about that original question: Why did so many people who never met Steve Jobs mourn so deeply when he died? My answer: Because they never met him.

September Preview

A few things to look forward to next month:

  • After a summer recess, the Alameda relaunches its Classic Movie Series on the 15th with the Elvis Presley vehicle Blue Hawaii, which I vaguely remember seeing as a kid. My memories of the other two films–Three Days of the Condor and The Seven Year Itch–are also vague.
  • The Balboa‘s Thursday classic series will cover Hollywood in the 60s with four well-chosen films: The Apartment, To Kill a Mockingbird, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Midnight Cowboy. They’re
    also screening heist films every Tuesday throughout the month.
  • The Castro has a lot of good stuff, of course, including Nashville (9/17), Lawrence of Arabia (9/18-20), Midnight Cowboy (9/24), and a double bill of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Sorcerer (9/27).
  • The Castro will also do an all-day Vittorio De Sica series on 9/26. Oddly, it’s skipping his Neorealism masterpiece, The Bicycle Thief.
  • After a summer hiatus, the Cerrito restarts its Classics series with Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita.
  • The I Wake Up Dreaming series of very dark noirs will play in Berkeley’s California Theater Wednesdays throughout the month. I’ll be able to see noir on the big screen without crossing the bay!

Finally, I want to clear up some confusion concerning two documentaries on the same subject. This year’s San Francisco Jewish Film Festival presented a doc called The Go-Go Boys: The Inside Story of Cannon Films. It focused on Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, who built a successful Israeli movie studio, moved to Los Angeles, churned out low-budget action flicks at record speed, made huge amounts of money, became a power in Hollywood, and then saw their business empire collapse.

I screened that documentary before the Festival, enjoyed it moderately well, and gave it a B.

So I was surprised a few weeks ago to discover that a documentary about Cannon Films called Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films would be coming out in September. Had a new distributor changed the name?

No. It’s actually another documentary. According to this blog post by George Rother, “Neither Golan nor Globus participated in Electric Boogaloo. True to old form, they immediately set about making their own documentary, The Go-Go Boys: The Inside Story of Cannon Films. It beat Electric Boogaloo
into theaters by three months. I can’t think of a more appropriate swan song for Golan, ” who died earlier this month.

The Actor’s Voice: My review of Listen to Me Marlon

A documentary

  • Directed by directed by Stevan Riley

I’ve seen a lot of documentaries about movie stars. But I’ve never before seen one quite like this Marlon Brando biography. By using Brando’s own audio recordings in place of the usual voice-of-God narration, it takes us into his head. You won’t get as many facts in Listen to Me Marlon as you would in a conventional documentary, but you’ll get a far stronger sense of exactly who he was.

To anyone who loves motion pictures, Marlon Brando is both a giant of the art and a disappointing enigma. His method-based, down-to-earth, realistic acting style made him one of the most, if not the most, influential actor in the history of the medium. Only Lillian Gish comes close in the way she changed acting. He was, in the 1950s, huge. His films made big box office. His talent was universally praised. Women swooned over him.

But then, in the sixties, he earned a reputation as a troublemaker on the set. He had a comeback in the early 70s with The Godfather and Last Tango in Paris. But he soon gave up on being a great actor. He only took parts that paid huge amounts of money but required very little effort. He became a joke.

Some people write diaries. Brando spoke his. He recorded his thoughts and feelings into tape recorders over the course of his life. When he died in 2004, he left behind hundreds of hours of these tapes. Director Stevan Riley used these recordings as the backbone to Listen to Me Marlon. We hear him talking about his alcoholic and abusive parents, the characters he played, the tragedies that ruined his children’s lives, and his sexual promiscuity. He gives his side of the story about the famously troubled productions of Mutiny on the Bounty and Apocalypse Now. He explains the difficulties he had finding his character for The Godfather, and how he realized the Don Corleone sees himself not as a monster, but as a loving, gentle patriarch.

Riley supplements the talking with music–much of it haunting–interviews, and scenes from his movies. We have a huge photographic record of Marlon Brando’s life and an even larger one of his work. Riley uses both to illustrate what’s being said on the soundtrack.

Listen to Me Marlon doesn’t show us all that much about what Marlon Brando did. It us tells what he thought. And when you come right down to it, that’s the more fascinating story.

Subject to Debate: My review of Best of Enemies

A- Documentary

  • Directed by Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon

Today’s so-called culture wars burst into existence in 1968, with clashes over Vietnam, racism, and a new sexual freedom. By concentrating on a series of television debates between erudite, east-coast intellectuals, this breezy and entertaining documentary offers a plausible explanation of how our current world came to be.

William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal were intelligent, influential, and successful, and both were exceptionally skilled debaters. And their world views were as different as they could get. Buckley, the editor of the National Review, was an extreme right-wing reactionary Christian, as determined to stop sexual promiscuity as he was to destroy the safety net for the poor. Vidal, a very successful novelist, was politically progressive, a defender of both the downtrodden and the new "free love." He was gay, and barely inside the closet.

They hated each other.


In that tumultuous year, the ABC television network–desperate for better news ratings–decided on something outrageous. They hired Buckley and Vidal to debate ten times over the course of the Republican and Democratic conventions. It was an interesting year to use that approach; riots broke out in the streets of Chicago during the Democratic convention.

Best of Enemies argues–and many historians agree–that Buckley played a major role in setting America on its current course. He helped turn Ronald Reagan into a popular national figure, and created an intellectual foundation for today’s anti-government, pro-war, elitist, and repressively Christian Republican party.

Directors Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon make another assertion which I hadn’t heard before: That these debates changed television news, taking it from a fact-reporting medium to an opinion-based one, built around argument. Within a decade, televised commentator debates were so common that Saturday Night Live regularly satirized the formula ("Jane, you ignorant slut").

And as you watch the debates (which take up well under half of the film’s 87-minute runtime), you can see the political atmosphere devolving. Here are two brilliant men taking quotes out of context and throwing insults at each other. Being who I am, I was rooting for Vidal. But even though he tended to win the debates, he disappointed me by attacking Buckley’s character, not his views.

Most of the film puts the debates into a historical context, with biographical sketches, news footage of the times, funny stories about ABC’s amateurish convention coverage (their lighting structure literally collapsed), and interviews with people involved.

Oddly for a documentary covering the uprisings of 1968, Best of Enemies avoids the popular songs of the era. That was the right decision, and not only because it avoided a cliché. We generally think of the clashes of ’68 as a generational divide, but Buckley and Vidal were of the same age (both born in the fall of 1925), and way too old for the rock and roll generation.

If you’re at all interested in recent American history, you should see this film.

The version I screened back in April was described as a "working copy." What you see may be slightly different.

The Green Film Festival and Bikes vs. Cars

I’m not going to attend this year’s Green Film Festival. It runs simultaneously with the biggest and best cinematic orgy of the year–the Silent Film Festival. True, Green runs for an additional two days after Silent, but I won’t be in movie-going shape by then.

Besides, I’m a bit off-put by what I call advocacy film festivals. I really don’t want to be lectured to by every film in a festival, even if I agree with the lecture.

But as someone who never drives a car when I can ride a bicycle, I thought I would preview the opening film, Bikes vs. Cars. The documentary isn’t perfect, but the subject is very close to my heart. I give a B.


Director Fredrik Gertten follows various bicycle advocates in various cities around the world, concentrating on two large, horribly auto-centric metropolitan areas–Sao Paulo and my native town, Los Angeles. The activists talk both on camera and off, discussing congestion, pollution, bad urban design, and the economic/political forces that emphasize automobiles over common sense. We also visit exceptionally bike-friendly cities such as Copenhagen and Amsterdam.

Gertten makes good use of small, HD video cameras that can be mounted on helmets and handlebars.

Although I wouldn’t call this an unbiased film, Gertten gives pro-car people a chance to offer their side of the story. A cab driver complains traffic problems caused by bikes (would he be happier if all of those cyclists were driving cars?). The most colorful car promoter in the film is Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, who removed bike lanes and tore up streetcar tracks in his efforts to heat up the planet. Oddly, no one mentions his crack cocaine issues.

But the film concentrates on its pro-bike heroes. It gets repetitious in the second half, as you hear the same arguments over and over again. Things pick up a bit for the optimistic ending.

Bikes vs. Cars screens at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco on Thursday, May 28, at 6:00–opening night of the festival.


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