Johny’s in the basement
Mixing up the medicine
I’m on the pavement
Thinking about the government
One of the most important and iconic documentaries ever, D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back is a remarkable time capsule of a particularly peculiar artist at a particularly peculiar period in his career. The artist is of course is Bob Dylan. The period is the end of his one man/one guitar generational profit days before he went electric and fell in love with pissing off the world. He was the perfect subject for Pennebaker, one of the early cinema verite kids with a particular interest in following around musicians. What emerged was a film that’s as raw, honest, caustic, and bitterly hilarious as it’s star. A portrait of the pains of fame and the frustrating pressure any artist faces to validate their own importance, whether they care if the world understands them or not.
Shot during then 23-year-old Bob Dylan’s spring tour around England, Pennebaker does virtually nothing to impose on his subject. He’s just an eye in the corner for a bizarre and fascinating series of incidents. There’s plenty of backstage banter, amusingly course backroom deals, some dark drunken shenanigans, flippant interviews with journalists, and of course a proto-music video (You know the one. With the cue cards. That iconic slice of music history set to “Subterranean Homesick Blues”). What made Don’t Look Back so appealing at the time and continues to draw cultural fascination today is how much the movie avoids lionizing or coddling it’s subject. Quite frankly, Dylan comes off as a bit of a dick in the film even if his behaviour feels justified most of the time. Dylan being Dylan, that attitude only brought him more fans.
Scene after scene Dylan irreverently dismisses tedious questions from prodding journalists and gets into fights with drunken hangers on. He is genuinely kind to fans and excited by the experience of touring, yet every time he steps on stage to sing “The Times They Are A-Changing,” his eyes go dead. He’s already tired of the image he created, anxious to transform into something new even while people are just starting to figure him out. The grainy black-and-white 16mm cinematography and constant chain-smoking only amplifies that cool demeanour. Though Pennebaker couldn’t possibly have calculated his creation given that he was merely using the tools available at the time and shooting whatever crossed his camera, he created an aesthetic and portrait of the music world that continues to resonate. It’s just as easy to imagine kids watching Dylan today and adopting his attitude as it was in the late 60s.
You can’t help but wonder if the talented kid is performing for the camera, since he was certainly conscious of his image. Yet that doesn’t hurt the impact or legacy of the film one bit. If the movie was manufactured to any degree by Dylan, it was done privately and is a testament to his cracked genius. If everything was genuine, then it’s a fascinating portrait of one of the original angry young men. Either way, the film remains an undisputed classic and one of the great documentaries ever made. You know, the type of thing that should be in the Criterion Colleciton. And now it is.
The film looks and sounds great within the limitations of it’s own creation. Black and white 16mm film can only look so pretty and monaural sound can only be cleaned up so much. However, those technical limitations suit the subject matter and Criterion have done an absolutely beautiful job of presenting the movie in the best possible quality.
They’ve also spiffed up the 2006 outtake sequel 65 Revisited in HD along with a new round of never before seen outtakes. The D.A. Pennebaker commentary and interview from the 2006 Blu-ray release has also been included along with a new conversation between Pennebaker and Dylan’s old tour manager Bob Neuwirth about the inspiration and legacy of Don’t Look Back. Onmtop of that there a five extra recorded songs from the tour, a brief interview with Dylan, an alternate version of the cue card opening, a documentary about Pennebaker’s filmmaking style, three of the director’s early shorts, an amusing interview with Patti Smith about her love of the film, and probably a partridge and a pear tree hidden in their somewhere.
Does it deserve a spot on your Dork Shelf?
It’s an astoundingly packed disc for fans of the film and director. Criterion clearly pulled out all the stops to present this truly iconic film in the package it deserves and for those who enjoy this sort of thing, buying it is a no brainer. In fact, you should already own it by now.