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First-Look DVD: Don't Look Back

Highlights from Issue 29: The Photography Issue

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Monday, February 12, 2007

The following review is featured in Issue 29: The Photography Issue. This issue is available for purchase on this site

DON'T LOOK BACK (1967)
BOB DYLAN 65 REVISITED (2006)
Directed by D.A. Pennebaker
(Docurama)

Reviewed by Nicolas Rapold

“He invented that camera,” says a 25-year-old Bob Dylan in an extra scene available on the new edition of Don’t Look Back. One pioneer giving props to another, and that’s the exquisite twofold rarity — the medium and a messenger — of D.A. Pennebaker’s essential 1965 rock doc. Here’s a fierce, still-exploding artist quite unlike any folkies or rock’n’rollers, captured by the likewise novel techniques of cinema verité — an agile style known for illuminating experience, rather like the star in question.

It was after Bringing It All Back Home, and before Highway 61 Revisited; after already near-iconic status in the States, and before Newport antimyth and Blonde on Blonde. It was April 1965 and Bob Dylan was embarking on a solo tour of England. Pennebaker, commissioned by Dylan’s dauntless manager Albert Grossman, was Johnny-on-the-spot with his lightweight synch-sound camera rig, jerryrigged with Bulova watch crystals. And... we hang out. We listen, in the void-vanquishing spotlights of transcendent concert performances, but more often we watch Dylan hold court in hotel rooms and Brit press gauntlets where he’s treated as alien or guru or youthquake.

The movie rattles around your head like one of his songs — like the film’s first lengthy performance, “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.” You remember the scenes as scored to Dylan’s Beat speech rhythms when he gets rolling, like his famous punk-Socratic jags needling a Time reporter and a callow “science student” (later to co-found Chrysalis Records), as well as the more ludic repose of trading Hank Williams songs with fellow traveler Joan Baez. Grossman’s bargaining is given respect, too. Then the B-sides, the less notorious, vanishing moments: Dylan talking self-deprecatingly about his voice (“just as good a singer as Caruso”) or, indelibly, working over a new melody at a piano in an empty backlit storeroom, his sole companion a man leaning his head against the piano’s side to feel as well as hear.

That songwriting moment is visible in full (epiphanic) form early on in Bob Dylan 65 Revisited, a kind of complemental alternate take of Don’t Look Back. Edited together from unseen footage of the same English tour, the hourlong doc is its own item, emphasizing Dylan in performance and, just as strikingly, in more subdued moods. In this portrait Dylan’s zingers don’t always land, and one sees other facets of the always-on performer Pennebaker wanted to highlight in DLB. A bit more typical here is Mr. Dylan buying a proper pea coat, and it’s his pals who do the wisecracking. Best of all: the rousing, the tender, admonitory performances here play out uncut, including “To Ramona,” “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” an especially you-old-doggy “If You Gotta Go, Go Now,” and the one that gave the movie its title (“She Belongs to Me”).

Don’t Look Back culminates with the tour’s big one at the Royal Albert Hall. Anyone who claims Pennebaker’s was a sloppy aesthetic need look only at the climactic long shot that launched a thousand concert docs: the hundred-mile spotlight on Dylan, tiny in the corner — the light at the end of the tunnel. When the music is over, we hustle back with Dylan, Grossman and road manager Bob Neuwirth into a car. As it pulls away, the singer, the last to be both wise and cool, murmurs something surprising, something about having “been through something ... special.” For once he’s at a loss for words.

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