Plot: What’s it about?
I should mention right now that I am a huge Bob Dylan fan. He ranks as my favorite songwriter of all time and I listen to his music on close to a daily basis. That is why I was so excited when Criterion announced that they would be bringing Don’t Look Back to Blu-ray.
Don’t Look Back is one of the best known documentary films ever made. It serves as both an essential document of a time and place (London,1965) and an essential piece to figure out the puzzle that is Bob Dylan. Dylan is a polarizing figure, with the majority agreeing that he is a genius and a poet, and the others getting hung up on his strange voice.
This film captures Dylan at the crossroads of his career. At this point he had already blown people away with Another Side of Bob Dylan, The Freewheeling Bob Dylan, and The Times They Are A-Changin’. The film finds him right before he would release Bringing It All Back Home and then go electric on Highway 65 Revisited. Dylan would release those two bombshells in the next few months after the film wrapped up. This is Dylan in many ways at the pinnacle of his acoustic years, right before he would team up with the Canadians in The Band. Watching the film, it is hilarious to think that Dylan knew the ammo that was in his gun, and doesn’t lead on about the new sound he was about to release aside from playing “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding.” So, what exactly are we getting in this film?
We get to see what Dylan’s life was really like. Pennebaker decided that he would barely include any concert footage, and when he did for the most part it is clipped to just a tease of what the song would typically be. That means that the film is spent on following Dylan from hotel room to hotel room as he practices his instruments, hangs out with Joan Baez, Marianne Faithful, Allen Ginsberg, smokes a million cigarettes, and disregards journalists constantly. We get to see the drain of running from a concert into a waiting car while a girl hangs onto the hood of the speeding vehicle. We get to see him create music and rag on Donovan. Even when Dylan wrote his autobiography, the excellent Chronicles Volume One, Dylan holds the audience at arms length. This film shows Dylan the least guarded that he would ever be.
As a fan of Dylan, this is a no brainer. I also would say that this is the essential music documentary, ranking up there with Gimme Shelter in terms of necessity and substance. It is a good example of when two genres meet to make something beautiful.
Video: How’s it look?
Criterion did an incredible job on the brand new 4K digital transfer of the film. Depth and clarity are excellent, with the shadows and grain of the film fully present. This movie was shot with hand held equipment in black and white and can be very soft in places, but it fits he feel of the film. Watching this new transfer was a revelation after the times I had seen it in different formats ranging from VHS to DVD. Criterion have done an excellent job of cleaning up dirt and scratches with a very pleasing final product. I have not seen the previous Blu-ray, but I feel safe in saying that this is as good as this film is going to look, and a joy to watch!
Audio: How’s it sound?
This is a monaural track so it is relatively limited to begin with. Now add into that the film was shot with relatively limited range of audio equipment (think Godard and shotgun mics.) There is a persistent hum of the camera as it films most scenes. That said, the scenes in concert open up a bit more and tend to sound pretty good. This is the best that this film has sounded, but you need to set your bar lower than a modern documentary. Another solid transfer by Criterion.
Supplements: What are the extras?
- Audio commentary- from 1999 featuring Pennebaker and tour manager Bob Neuwirth. Thjs commentary is a blast and helps to point out some of the famous faces along the way. Definitely worth your time, although prepare for a little bit of hero worship (can’t really blame them.)
- 65 Revisited, a 2006 documentary by Pennebaker with out takes from Don’t Look Back. This was fantastic. So much good material here. It’s an hour and five minutes long. I would list the songs, but don’t you want to find out and be surprised?
- Dylan on Don’t Look Back–Audio excerpt from a 2000 interview with Bob Dylan for the documentary No Direction Home, cut to previously unseen outtakes from Don’t Look Back. Pretty short, but enjoyable.
- D.A Pennebaker: A Look Back – a new documentary about the evolution of Pennebaker’s filming style. I loved this feature, because it showed how he started filmmaking and then it included three of the short films mentioned:
- Daybreak Express (1953), Baby (1954), and Lambert & Co. (1964). All of the shorty films have been meticulously digitally transferred.
- D.A. Pennebaker and Bob Neuwirth- New conversation between Pennebaker and Neuwirth about their work together
- Snapshots from the Tour, a new piece featuring never-before-seen outtakes from Dont Look Back. More great stuff!
- Patti Smith- an interesting conversation about how Dylan influenced her and helped her along in her career.
- Greil Marcus and D.A. Pennebaker- Conversation between music critic Greil Marcus and Pennebaker from 2010. Good stuff.
- Alternate version of the film’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” cue card sequence
- Five audio recordings of Dylan songs not used in the film- “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” “The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll,” “Toramona”
The Bottom Line
Don’t Look Back is an incredible documentary about an incredible subject. If you are a fan of documentary film or of Dylan, this is a necessary document. Criterion have provided an incredible new 4K transfer of the film. On top of the fantastic transfer, Criterion have provided over five hours of additional material for fans of the film and Pennebaker. They could have easily made a full second documentary out of just two of the featured supplements. If you are a fan of the film, this is the version to own. I personally could not be happier to own this piece of history in my collection. If you are trying to figure out what it was about Dylan that set him so far apart from the other artists of his time, look no further than here.