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?

My Fair Lady on the big screen

This Saturday morning, I finally saw the film version of My Fair Lady on the big screen–specifically, the big screen at the Cerrito. I really enjoyed it. As far as the big, roadshow musicals of the 1950s and ’60s go, it’s one of the best. Although, in general, those aren’t my favorite musicals.

I give it a B+.

The story is George Bernard Shaw’s 1912 play Pygmalion, , turned into a musical by Alan Jay Lerner (book and lyrics) and Frederick Loewe (music). Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison), a brilliant phonetics expert and a horrible human being, sets out to turn cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn) into a fine lady. It’s just an experiment for him; he couldn’t care less about Eliza as a person–at least initially.

Shaw’s original play brilliantly examined issues of class, culture, and gender roles in an intimate story that deftly balanced between drama and comedy. The musical version adds spectacle, which is absolutely unnecessary but doesn’t really hurt the story.

The stage version became a phenomenal hit on Broadway, so Jack Warner( at that point the sole surviving Warner Brother) turned it into a very big movie directed by George Cukor. This was probably the last movie set in Britain but shot entirely in Hollywood soundstages. But the sets built on those soundstages dripped with high-polish–whether its Higgins’ enormous study or Covent Garden in the wee hours of the morning.

And yet, for all its polish, the film version of My Fair Lady stays true to Shaw’s vision and themes. A pivotal scene at a racetrack manages to be opulent, expressionistic, surreal, funny, and very satirical.

Harrison makes a wonderful Higgins, tyrannical, cruel, and yet slowly falling in love and not understanding why. Harrison wasn’t a singer, but he talks his songs so well you don’t notice it. Stanley Holloway steals the movie as Eliza’s happily slothful father. His two songs are the movie’s musical highlights. Both Harrison and Holloway won Oscars for their roles.

Audrey Hepburn didn’t’ win an Oscar, and didn’t deserve one. She’s pretty good in the title role, but she’s miscast and had to have her singing dubbed. Julie Andrews, who created the role on the Broadway stage, should have been cast in the movie. (She won an Oscar that year for Mary Poppins.)

The other big problem is the ending. When Pygmalion was turned into a movie in 1938 (starring Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller), the money people objected to Shaw’s original ending. Their “happy ending” (I personally find it depressing) was used in both the stage and film versions of My Fair Lady.

I have a strange history with this story. My mother had the Broadway cast album, and I listened to it often as a young child. So I grew up knowing the songs, but not the story. I was ten when the movie came out, and I don’t remember why I didn’t see it.

Years later, when I was in my 20s, I saw the 1938 film version of Pygmalion. A few years later, I read the play.

I finally saw My Fair Lady about 20 years ago–a borrowed Laserdisc of the then-new Robert Harris restoration. It was a strange experience. I knew the story. I knew the songs even better. But I was stunned to realize that I had no idea how the songs fit into the story.

Laserdisc didn’t do My Fair Lady justice. A DCP and a large screen does.

Big, roadshow musical movies coming to the Bay Area

A particular kind of movie musical will soon get a lot of exposure in the Bay Area–the large-format roadshow musicals of the 1950s and ’60s. These were almost always close adaptations of popular Broadway stage musicals. They were often shot and projected in large, high-definition, film formats such as Todd-AO or Super Panavision 70. And they opened as what the industry called roadshows–playing in one large theater per major city, with expensive tickets, reserved seats, and an intermission.

In my opinion, not one of these films stands up against such great musicals as Singin’ in the Rain, Top Hat, The Band Wagon, and A Hard Day’s Night. But they have their pleasures. Besides, I have a fascination with the large-format roadshow movies of that period–even the bad ones.

The Stanford devotes the next five weeks to these musicals in their Rodgers and Hammerstein series. Every weekend through November 8, they will screen a large-format roadshow adaptation of an R&H stage musical. They start this weekend with the show that set the template for roadshow musicals: Oklahoma!. In fact, as the first film shot in Todd-AO, it set the template for all of the large-format roadshows–even ones like Ben-Hur where no one broke out into song.

The Stanford series will close four weeks later with the biggest commercial success of the genre, The Sound of Music.

The Stanford press release trumpets that the films will all be shown “in glorious 35mm!” That’s an odd brag since 35mm is a considerable step down from the way most of these films were shot and screened. I’m probably going to get people angry here, but a good DCP transfer can better simulate the glories of Todd-AO than can a 35mm print.

The other theaters will screen these movies digitally off of DCPs.

My Fair Lady, which was not written by Rodgers and Hammerstein, will be screened in at least four Bay Area theaters this month:

  • The Alameda will screen it next week on October 13 and 14.
  • The Castro has it on Sunday, October 18, on a very strange double bill with Steve Martin’s The Jerk.
  • The Elmwood will also screen it on 18th, and again on the 19th.
  • Finally, the Cerrito will have a special, 10:00am screening on Saturday, October 24.

The Cerrito and Elmwood will also screen Oklahoma! in November. The Elwood on November 1 and 2. The Cerrito on Saturday, November 7, again at 10:00am.

But the version of Oklahoma! at
the Elmwood and the Cerrito will not be the same as the one now playing at the Stanford. Early Todd-AO was shot and projected at 30 frames per second, rather than the standard 24fps, making it impossible to screen in all but a few theaters. So the film was shot twice: in 30fps Todd-AO for the 70mm roadshow, and in plain old, 35mm, 24fps CinemaScope for the eventual wide release.

I’ve only seen the Oklahoma! movie on Laserdisc (I’ve also seen the live show), and it was transferred from the 35mm version. From what I’ve read, the performances are considerably different.

Since the Stanford will screen Oklahoma! in 35mm, it will be the CinemaScope version. But the Cerrito and Elmwood will screen DCPs from the recent digital restoration, made from the Todd-AO negative. Digital projection can handle 30fps just fine.

I’m looking forward to catching that one…and maybe My Fair Lady, as well.

War and music: The Kronos Quartet at the San Francisco International Film Festival

Wednesday night, San Francisco’s Kronos Quartet came to the San Francisco International Film Festival to present their music-and-moving-image piece, Kronos Quartet Beyond Zero: 1914-1918. I was in the audience.

This was not the usual silent movie presentation. The Quartet commissioned Aleksandra Vrebalov to write the music. Then they commissioned Bill Morrison to create a new film, made up of old footage, to match the score.

The theme is World War I. The work is intended to be an anti-war piece.


Since this was first and foremost a concert, let me start with the music. It was beautiful and haunting. Appropriately for the subject matter, it had a sad and tragic feel to it. But not all of it was live. It started with an old recording–Bartok playing one of his own pieces (no, I didn’t recognize it; I was told). Occasionally, we could barely hear voices, and instruments not played by the Quartet.

Bill Morrison’s montage seemed less about the horrors of war and more about the horrors of nitrate decomposition. The images came from contemporary newsreels and cinematic propaganda–rolls of film people haven’t looked at nearly a century. They ranged from bad condition to barely watchable. Yet Morrison seemed to revel in every blob of jellied nitrate, finding a strange beauty in the disintegration.


But when you looked through the rotting film to the original images, they just weren’t that interesting. Soldiers marching. Soldiers eating. An occasional dead body. The result was more of a lightshow than an anti-war statement.

But the lightshow and the haunting music worked well together. I give this presentation (I can’t quite call it a film) a B+.

After the presentation, the quartet returned to the stage for Q&A. Neither Vrebalov nor Morrison was with them, but Drew Cameron–a papermaker whose work added to Morrison’s imagery–joined in. Some highlights:

  • On the process of creation: "It began with our relationship with Vrebalov. She’s written some wonderful pieces for us. And we began to realize that it’s been 100 years since the outbreak of World War I.
  • "When you think of it, the recording of music was very new at that time, and people were just beginning to have music in their homes."
  • "This was the first time we’ve played this at a film festival. The smell of popcorn was just great. We should have that at concerts."
  • "Sometimes as I play I feel that I’m really in the trenches and I can’t get out."
  • "A lot of times when war is portrayed in a visual way you see a lot of blood and gore. Here it’s in the film itself…that the film is decaying."

Who are they? My review of Lambert & Stamp

B+ Music documentary

  • Directed by James D. Cooper

I don’t know if I enjoyed this movie so much because it was very well made, or simply because it’s about The Who–a band that I have been a fan of for more than 40 years. I doubt if Lambert & Stamp would be of much interest to people who are not Who fans, but for someone like me, it’s catnip.

If Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp hadn’t come across an obscure London rock band called The High Numbers, none of us would have ever heard of The Who. Close friends and aspiring filmmakers, Lambert and Stamp set out to make a documentary about themselves managing a rock group. They never made the movie, but they sure proved their worth as managers. They turned The High Numbers into The Who, and shepherded the group to fame and (to a lesser extent) fortune. Their influence with The Who receded after the phenomenal success of Tommy.


Lambert’s musical background (his father was composer/conductor Constant Lambert) gave him an edge in helping develop the group’s sound. He worked closest with Pete Townsend, mentoring the young guitar player’s song-writing skills. There’s considerable controversy over to what extent he co-wrote Tommy; filmmaker Cooper shows us both sides of the argument and wisely takes no side.

Stamp and Townsend spend a lot of time talking to the camera here. Other interview subjects include Roger Daltrey and Stamp’s brother Terence (yes, that Terence Stamp). Lambert couldn’t tell his side of the story; he died from a cerebral hemorrhage in 1981.

I had to look up that fact on Wikipedia. Cooper seems shy about such things. Early on, Stamp mentions that Lambert isn’t around to tell his own story. But the film never discusses Lambert’s death in a meaningful way. Keith Moon’s death, three years earlier, is mentioned only in the context of legal proceedings. The only sign that John Entwistle is no longer amongst the living is his absence from the interviews. Chris Stamp, arguably the movie’s star, died as the film was being made, but there’s no mention of his passing.

Cooper’s visual flair in filming the interviews (he’s known mostly as a cinematographer), his creative use of stock footage, and Christopher Tellefsen’s frenetic editing style gives Lambert & Stamp a rough, energetic quality appropriate for the subject. Not surprisingly, songs by The Who dominate the soundtrack–although I don’t think we hear one from beginning to end.


But this isn’t the sort of picture you go to see for the music. If you want a more musical Who documentary, see that other movie made by an American novice director, The Kids are Alright from 1979.

The Wrecking Crew: The hidden heroes of rock ‘n’ roll (my review)

B Music documentary

  • Directed by Denny Tedesco

Who supplied the addictive riffs on “Da Doo Ron Ron,” "California Dreamin’," “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” and the theme music for Mission: Impossible? Despite what it says on the LP sleeves, much of the inspiration came from an unsung collection of Los Angeles session musicians informally called The Wrecking Crew.

Denny Tedesco, the son of Wrecking Crew guitarist Tommy Tedesco, introduces these successful but little-known musicians in this mostly entertaining documentary. He interviews surviving members of the group, mixes in old footage, and explains the origins of the songs that became the background track of our youth.

The Wrecking Crew.

And if you’re thinking "Maybe your youth; not mine," you’re probably right. If you’re not a musician, a musicologist, or a baby boomer, this movie isn’t for you. But for me, a boomer who became a teenager in 1967, almost every tune brought back memories, then filled in details about those memories that I had never before thought about.

Not surprisingly, filmmaker Tedesco spends a good deal of the film’s time on his father, who died in 1997. Aside from being a brilliant musician, Tommy Tedesco was a funny guy. He clowned around in the studio, in seminars, and on TV on the Gong Show. He’s inherently fun to watch.

Denny and Tommy Tedesco

But my favorite of the profiled musicians was Carol Kaye, a woman working in a predominately male industry in the decade where Mad Men is set. Starting out as a jazz guitarist and turning to bass as she moved to rock, her driving riffs filled in many a great song., including "California Girls," I’m a Believer," and "These Boots are Made for Walking."

Carol Kaye

None of these musicians started out in rock. But they were young adults as the new genre materialized in the 1950s, and they found a niche where they could earn a good living while doing what they loved. They were not formally a group, but often found themselves working together from one gig to another. In huge demand, they worked round the clock from one session to another, ignoring their families but raking in cash.

Until it stopped. In the late 60s, rock got serious, and fans wanted to know that the actual band members were playing the music. The gigs didn’t disappear immediately–the Crew also worked on other genres and recorded movie and TV scores–but they gradually leveled off.

Except for Glen Campbell and Leon Russell, who became stars in their own rights.


Clearly, this is a companion piece for 2013’s Twenty Feet from Stardom, concentrating on instrumental musicians instead of singers. But Tedesco can’t quite find the strong narrative line that made the earlier film so exciting. At times, especially in the middle, the discussions of one song after another become repetitive.

Another problem: Since the film is about session musicians, there’s no live performance footage. Studio work lacks the cinematic excitement of live rock and roll.

Aside from the Wrecking Crew veterans themselves, interview subjects include Dick Clark, Cher, Herb Albert, Lou Adler, and Brian Wilson.

Whiplash and the All-Male World of Jazz

I saw Whiplash a couple of nights ago. I liked it. It was tense. I very much wanted the protagonist to succeed, even though he was kind of a dick. Veteran actor J.K. Simmons, playing the most evil music teacher since Hans Conried in The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T., finally got the juicy part he so long deserved (he’ll also deserve the Oscar he’ll almost certainly get Sunday). And best of all, the music was great.

But it was set in a New York City that was almost entirely male, and pretty much white.

In Thursday’s Chronicle, Mick LaSalle wrote an excellent piece on the achingly few good roles provided for women in today’s American movies. He didn’t mention Whiplash, but it really made his point.

The film is set in what appears to be a very classy, totally fictitious music conservatory, apparently devoted entirely to jazz. And it’s an almost entirely all-male school? I saw one young woman among the students. We never heard her name, and if she had a line of dialog, I don’t remember it. She played sax.

Since that conservatory was created by writer/director Damien Chazelle, he was completely free to select the demographics of the student body. So why was the ratio of boys to girls something like 40 to 1?


Whiplash tells the story of a young drummer determined to become a great and legendary jazz musician. His name is Andrew, he’s played by Miles Teller. He is, of course, a white man. Simmons plays the teacher/bandleader Fletcher, also a white man. About half of the class are black men. But the important characters, including Andrew’s father and the drummers he competes with in class, are also white.

In reality, this teacher would have been fired long ago. He’s verbally abusive, and sometimes physically so. He uses sexist and homophobic insults. Obviously, in his view, you get the best out of a budding musician by loudly insulting his manhood in front of his peers. The film doesn’t suggest that these insults are in any way acceptable–Fletcher is, after all, the villain–but it seems strange that he’s been apparently getting away with this behavior for years.


There is a sort of female lead in the film, and…you guessed it…she’s Andrew’s girlfriend. Their relationship doesn’t last long. That’s hardly surprising–Andrew is a single-minded narcissist. To the film’s credit, the break up avoids the usual clichés. I don’t think she’s in more than four scenes.

Almost every American film, Hollywood or independent, is male centric, but this one seemed especially extreme. As I said, I liked Whiplash, but it left an uncomfortable taste in my mouth.


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