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?

2 thoughts on “Dont Look Back Blu-ray Review

  1. So, as if there was any doubt, I find myself utterly exposed as the language snob I am. The missing apostrophe in- I can hardly bring myself to type it- “Dont” makes me physically wince. I am not of this era. Was the writer of the title trying to be deliberately offensive? If not, what was s/he trying to convey, I wonder? Certainly puts me right off the film, for what that’s worth.

    1. Hey, I’m the one who had to keep correcting my autocorrect.

      The film is 50 years old, so you can’t blame it on today’s era. I don’t know who gave it that name; it was probably Pennebaker. And misspellings in titles are hardly unusual. Consider Inglorious Basterds.

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