In many ways, it made perfect sense that Don’t Look Back, D.A. Pennebaker’s landmark rock doc on the phenomenon known as Bob Dylan, only found release through a noted pornographer. In 1967, the Presidio, a crummy one-screen theater in San Francisco, was the only theater that decided to run Pennebaker’s 16mm masterpiece, after years of running nothing but porno flicks. The man who secured the initial week-long run at the Presidio even suggested that the film “looked like a porn film, but wasn’t.” The grainy print certainly embodies a certain low-budget charm that could assumedly be found in porno films, but it’s not enough to say that the film looks like a porno. Filmed during a three-week tour of London in the spring of 1965, a few months before Dylan’s electric set at the Newport Folk Festival threw his fanbase into tumult, Don’t Look Back promises and indeed delivers pleasures that might feel as forbidden as those found in Debby Does Dallas: the sight of a deity behind the scenes and in the midst of transition, acting like the rambling, arrogant, whip-smart, and immensely talented 24-year-old guitar player he actually was.
Much transpired between the filming in 1965 and the West Coast release in the spring of 1967, some four months prior to the film showing up at the 34th St. East Theater in Manhattan. The production of Don’t Look Back started rolling right as Dylan was at his most anxious, honing his performance on songs he had written and recorded during the Bringing It All Back Home sessions. Highway 61 Revisited would bow in August, representing the high-water-mark confluence of his prophetic songwriting abilities and his ambitious sense of musical composition, but we just barely glean the creative impetus that resulted in that album. Indeed, like the songs on Bringing It All Back Home, Don’t Look Back depicts the shedding of a chrysalis and the first emergence of a figure that is essentially the same person, and yet inarguably, negligibly altered.
Opening on the legendary clip for “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” which might as well have invented the art of the music video, Don’t Look Back abstains from narration and is ultimately a more behavioral study than anything else. Sitting backstage with bright-eyed Donovan, or philosophically jousting with a laughably unprepared science-student-cum-journalist sent to cover one of his concerts, Dylan’s actions, body language, and tone give far more insight into the artist than his words do, which isn’t to say that he’s in danger of running out of words. The songwriter’s instinctive, unending battle against definition is fought here largely in vocabulary, even as he argues with a correspondent from Time magazine that a collage of images will always be more memorable and honest than an article. When Donovan sits, strums, and croons “To Sing for You” for Dylan and his friends, Dylan says that he likes the song, but then takes the guitar and goes into an impromptu rendition of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” as if to say “that was adorable but let me show you what this is really about.”
Even Dylan’s attitude toward his own songs speaks volumes, as Pennebaker beautifully illustrates through repeatedly showing Dylan opening nearly every show with “The Times They Are-a-Changin’,” still perhaps his most famous song. Singing the chorus, Dylan looks bored and put-upon, in contrast to his venomous renditions of “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.” His disdain for the business of concerts is even more apparent when you see how loose and happier he seems when singing “Only a Pawn in Their Game” outside during a voter’s registration rally, which explains why larger-than-life manager Albert Grossman handled as much of that business as possible. In fact, one of the great delights of the film can be found in a quiet negotiation between Grossman, agent Tito Burns, and a series of concert hall managers, wherein Grossman and Burns pit the managers against one another to raise the price for their artist.
The thought of what Dylan might do if he were to learn about such negotiations is left to the imagination, as is his breakup with Joan Baez. Baez appears in a handful of scenes, but it’s obvious that the two artists are done with each other (or rather Dylan is bored by her) from the word go, making a moment when she sings an unfinished version of “Love Is Just a Four-Letter Word” and lightly pesters him as he writes a different song palpably melancholic. Baez is a key part of Dylan’s mythology, which was thoroughly explored in Todd Haynes’s astonishing I’m Not There, but Don’t Look Back is only fascinated in mythology as much as Dylan is fascinated by his own mythology. As opposed to Haynes’s, Pennebaker’s inquiry is far more sobering and yet just as immensely entertaining, invoking the overwhelming complexities of being young, talented, and famous while neither throwing darts at its subject or ignoring his deeply human faults.
To gaze at the flawed young man behind the tremendous legend proved to be a noteworthy box office draw. The Presidio ran Don’t Look Back for over a year to packed houses, but by that time Dylan had metamorphosed once again into a quiet country boy, recovering from a nasty motorcycle accident and the rollicking revelations of Blonde on Blonde with the grim, gothic landscapes of John Wesley Harding. A documentary in the vein of Don’t Look Back of that shift in musical—and social—persona will likely never surface, but part of what makes Dylan one of the most fascinating of pop icons is the fact that there’s an essential mystery to him that will (hopefully) never be fully unveiled. Toward the end of Pennebaker’s film, Grossman informs Dylan that a journalist referred to him as an anarchist in a recent article, an assertion that would cause any other public figure to take personal offense and set in motion a media shitstorm. Dylan replies, “Give the anarchist a cigarette,” happy enough to take on yet another guise for an intellectual minority that can’t help, but turn everyone into dictionary entries.
As with most things, the key to appreciating Docurama's 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer of Don't Look Back depends on context. Sure, the image hasn't been cleaned up to a degree that lives up to the high-water mark offered by the major studios or the Criterion Collection, and there are numerous instances of crush in the image and the black levels are subpar. On the other hand, the 16mm-shot film looks far better here than it did on DVD, with a healthy layer of grain and sufficient clarity. You won't be able to see the fine stitching on Bob Neuwirth's jacket, but the transfer is better than sufficient and remains true to the on-the-fly spirit of the project. The audio transfer, however, needs no such quantifying. The 2.0 mix and lossless soundtrack prove electrifying throughout, whether utilized during a riveting rendition of "It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" or a harrowing confrontation between Bob Dylan and a belligerent drunkard. Despite its flaws, I can't imagine this landmark will ever look or sound markedly better any time soon.
Docurama has packaged Don't Look Back with a bevy of substantial material, not the least of which is a DVD copy of 65 Revisited, a second film culled from extended scenes and unused footage that director D.A. Pennebaker took while shooting Don't Look Back. Even better is the exceedingly informative audio commentary featuring Pennebaker and Dylan's road manager, Bob Neuwirth, who can be seen throughout the film and here offers a fruitful conversation with the filmmaker about the production, Dylan, journalists, fans, and a series of other unexpected, tangential asides. Pennebaker's video interview with the great music critic Greil Marcus also touches on some fascinating points, including Dylan's attitude toward Donovan and the musician's general behavior. Also included: a theatrical trailer, five uncut audio tracks of Dylan in concert, and an alternate version of the legendary "Subterranean Homesick Blues" clip that opens the film.
It's unlikely that Don't Look Back will ever look better than it does on Docurama's Blu-ray release, making this two-disc package an essential purchase for rock-doc aficionados.