DON'T LOOK BACK
Review by Norman Kelsey
Stars: Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Donovan, Alan Price,
Albert Grossman, Bob Neuwirth
Director: D.A. Pennebaker
Audio: Uncompressed Monoo
Video: Full Frame 1.37:1
Features: See review
Length: 96 minutes
Release Date: Nov. 24, 2015
you going to the see the concert tonight?”
“Are you going to hear it?”
Dylanologists add another star and gaze deeply. You enter Dylan’s orbit. You circle close, pulled inexorably toward him. You round the darkside and get slingshot around to the light, grainy days of England, 1965. You hear his songs in fragments, messages from deep space, shards of lyrics, acoustic guitar and mouth organ. The stage of the Royal Albert Hall never felt so lonesome, yet so dominated by a solitary figure.
Anyone looking for the real Bob Dylan in D.A. Pennebaker’s 1967 classic Dont Look Back will be bamboozled. Anyone hoping for a vintage or vital concert film like Pennebaker’s Monterey Pop will be vexed. It’s more a document than documentary. Proof that Bob Dylan existed and was a titan of popular culture in 1965 before he went electric like a rolling stone. Dylan himself was never more open, but it is definitely the version he wanted you to experience. Almost everyone else on camera is hyperaware, too, even when they are being put on or put down by Dylan that they are in the moment.
There is hardly a complete musical number presented. However, there is always a jittery sense of preparation to take the stage or a howling escape from a heaving concert venue. The Beatles, ubiquitous and chief artistic peers in 1965, hover on peoples’ tongues, in conversation, and fashion; but the Fab Four are never seen. At every turn it feels like we are part of the insulated inner circle that is experiencing more than anyone else, but we still aren’t seeing the complete picture. We fly by, but never quite land.
The look of this film has always been just a step above home movie and frankly has the production value of an Ed Wood film or amateur hours like Manos The Hands of Fate. What it has going for it is Dylan seen through the lens of Pennebaker’s endless curiosity about his subject. Even if he hadn’t continued to ascend as a musical legend, the movie would be worth watching to see him and his coterie hilariously dismantle all comers at every turn: hotel managers, reporters, would be hangers-on, socialites and Donovan. We get to hang out with Dylan backstage, ride along to shows and be a part of informal jams and creative outbursts. Plus, Dylan is cooler in his Carnaby Street finery, cat-eye sunglasses and emerging ‘fro than 99% of humanity will ever be and he backs it up. Our hero moves in and out of frame, a shadowy but irresistible figure.
There is plenty of music in Dont Look Back and it is devastating. The fullest performances include a hotel session where Dylan warbles Hank Williams tunes, earlier footage of an unbelievably youthful Bob singing “Just a Pawn In Their Game,” and two of his most pointed originals, “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” The picture even begins with the proto-video of “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” It ends however with a sublime chauffeured ride into the sunset. We leave with a pensive Dylan, still on the verge of his greatest musical achievement, Highway 61 Revisited, musing over the latest reviews, pleased and plotting...with a mischievous grin. Anarchy.
Criterion has done a formidable job of restoring what has always been a problematic looking film. Pennebaker seemed to shoot this movie without the benefit of lighting, focus or framing and that is part of its charm or frustration. Criterion can only work so many miracles, but consider this one.
The monaural soundtrack is fantastic, especially if you are an analog audiophile. As noted, the musical performances are limited, but they are powered by the mono blast of Dylan on his harmonica and guitar. Pay close attention to the performances at the Royal Albert Hall. The audiences silences and the accidental clatter of his instrument are extraordinarily intimate; a beautiful counterpoint to the sonics of the vocals.
Criterion has served up a satisfying mix of old and new bonuses, especially for hardcore Dylanologists. For the casual viewer, even Pennebaker’s developmental short films are fascinating glimpses at his artistic process and they work as time capsules. A brand new one-on-one and vintage commentary with Pennebaker and Dylan insider Bob Neuwirth are insightful as you’ll never hear Dylan divulge this much about the 1965 UK tour or the film. Also of value is the new interview with rock legend Patti Smith who talks about Dylan’s influence and her interaction with him on the New York scene in the 1970s.
One of the most important movies about one of the most important cultural figures of our time. It’s rude, mercurial, inscrutable. Just like its subject. Just like he wanted it.