Don't Look Back
Studio: New Video/Docurama Films
Rated: Not Rated
Program Length: 96 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1 1080p
Languages: English 2.0 DTS-HD MA
Subtitles: English, Spanish, French
I once loved a woman, a child I'm told
I give her my heart, but she wanted my soul - "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right"
In the spring of 1965 Bob Dylan embarked upon a three-week concert tour of England. His business manager, Albert Grossman, made a deal with documentary filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker (Monterey Pop, The War Room) to chronicle the tour. Pennebaker was given unprecedented access to Dylan and his entourage. The final product was released in 1967 as Don't Look Back, a remarkable achievement in cinéma vérité. Filmed under normal lighting with 16 mm. black & white film, Pennebaker used an unobtrusive, "fly on the wall" approach to paint an intimate and candid portrait of the iconoclastic and enigmatic singer/songwriter.
Don't Look Back opens with a famous and clever sequence in which Dylan stands in a London alley, holding and discarding cards which contain words from the lyrics to his song, "Subterranean Homesick Blues," while his recording of it plays on the soundtrack. The film then kicks off as Dylan arrives in London with his collaborator, Bob Neuwirth. Dylan had just completed a tour in the United States with folk singer Joan Baez (who also was Dylan's on again, off again girlfriend), and she accompanied him to London. Others who appear in the film include the Scottish folk singer Donovan (who was just beginning to make a name for himself), Alan Price (keyboardist for The Animals), and singer Marianne Faithful (in a very brief cameo).
Viewers who are unfamiliar with the performers listed above may find themselves at a loss, because the film has no narration and there is no formal introduction of the people who interact with Dylan. However, those viewers will be at no greater disadvantage than the members of the British press who were assigned to cover the tour. Those middle-aged men are largely ignorant about Dylan's music and dismissive of him as just another pop star, a designation which the singer rejects. In fact, some of the more amusing and interesting footage shows Dylan verbally sparring with his interviewers, in some cases leaving them bewildered. The concert comes at a crossroads in Dylan's career, as he is in the process of abandoning his acoustic sound for the electric folk-rock of "Highway 61 Revisited."
Don't Look Back is not a concert film. There is plenty of music in it, but the concert footage consists mostly of snippets of songs. Although Dylan's British fans are largely from the same age group as fans of The Beatles, their demeanor at concerts could hardly have been more different. Whereas female fans of The Beatles tended to scream non-stop during live performances, Dylan's audiences sit in rapt silence until the conclusion of each song. This is not to suggest that Dylan did not have his groupies. He most certainly did, as the scenes of teenage girls standing outside of his hotel and hoping for a glimpse of him clearly demonstrate.
One of the more interesting characters in the film is Grossman, who enjoys hanging out with Dylan in the hotel as much as he relishes cutting a deal. Baez does not perform publicly during the tour (apparently this was a sore point with her), but she sings several songs during jam sessions at the hotel, including the surreal "Sally Go 'Round the Roses." Alan Price also does some singing and plays a mean piano backstage.
If Don't Look Back fails to completely explain what makes Bob Dylan tick, it is not the fault of the filmmaker. The singer is very careful about how much of himself he reveals, even to the point of refusing to acknowledge that his songs have deep significance. In fact, they have tremendous significance, and this film deftly captures his greatness at a turning point in his life.
I was able to compare this black & white Blu-ray release with the original DVD which was released in 1999. The same elements appear to have been used, as the occasional imperfections in the old transfer are replicated here. Overall the image is noticeably sharper, although the inherent limitations of the source material prevent it from being the sort of improvement which will blow the viewer away. A direct comparison demonstrates that the Blu-ray transfer shows a sliver more information on the sides than the original DVD. The images are very grainy in places, particularly during indoor shots which were done under limited lighting conditions. Happily, the studio has resisted any temptation to remove the grain, which would undoubtedly have robbed the images of detail.
The lossless 2.0 DTS-HD MA audio is fine, although hardly spectacular. The soundtrack manages to reproduce most of the conversations clearly, even in one chaotic hotel room scene where someone had thrown a glass out of a hotel window, striking a parked limousine. The musical performances are clear and free of distortion, although limited by the fact that they were recorded in mono. The optional subtitles can be useful during some scenes where the people are talking over one another.
Most of the extras have been ported over from the deluxe edition DVD which was released in 2007. The exception is a new interview with director D.A. Pennebaker and rock critic Greil Marcus.
The other extras include a commentary track by the director and Bob Neuwirth, which provides numerous insights into how the film was made and also is useful for identifying some of the people who appear in the film.
An alternate take of the "Subterranean Homesick Blues" opening was shot on a rooftop on a chilly, windy day. Pennebaker wisely did not use this take, but it is included here. Also included is the film's original trailer.
Five bonus audio tracks are live recordings of Dylan performing "To Ramona," "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll," "Love Minus Zero/No Limit," "It Ain't Me, Babe" and "Its All Over Now, Baby Blue."
There also is a second disc, a standard-definition DVD called 65 Revisited, which is a 65-minute collection of outtakes. This disc contains significantly more concert performances than the feature, and the film elements are generally in very good shape. This disc also includes a running commentary by the director and Neuwirth.
The two discs are packaged in a standard-size Blu-ray case.
The Final Analysis
Don't Look Back is a fascinating and entertaining look at Bob Dylan in the mid-sixties. This Blu-ray release is a definite step up from the original DVD, which did not include 65 Revisited. However, those who own the 2007 deluxe edition DVD may want to rent this or otherwise preview it before making a decision about buying. Although the Blu-ray image is better, the improvement is more incremental than dramatic.
Equipment used for this review:
Panasonic DMP-BD50 Blu-ray player
Panasonic Viera TC-P46G15 Plasma display, calibrated to THX specifications by Gregg Loewen
Yamaha HTR-5890 THX Surround Receiver
BIC Acoustech speakers
Interconnects: Monster Cable
Release Date: April 26, 2011