When a film gets a Criterion release you know it’s a worthy classic and D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back, the iconic portrait of Bob Dylan’s 1965 tour of England is long overdue this treatment. Thrust into a world of stuffed shirts and cigar smoke, Bob Dylan and his entourage go from hotel room to stage, followed by adoring fans and journalists eager to over analyse the next big thing without ever fully appreciating what they see and hear. The British press aren’t quite ready, they laud Donovan, much to the amusement of Dylan, who proclaims, ‘give it to Donovan’ when at an upmarket awards ceremony for best folk album of the year. At first Dylan’s relationship with the press is affable, he seems happy to talk and discuss. ‘Do you read the bible?’ is a question on more than one reporter’s lips. In one scene, Dylan is holding a giant lightbulb and ends the interview with classic line, ‘my motto is keep a good head and always carry a lightbulb’.
Relations sour as the tour continues, two worlds collide, the old guard, of folk singers in argyle sweaters and Dylan who is breaking the mould, and he pushes and chips away as the film continues. One particular incident occurs when a straight laced photographer is seen asking Joan Baez to pose, has no idea who she is and then when she tells him her name, replies, ‘oh I’ve been looking for you all day’. The thing is Don’t Look Back feels iconic, it feels special and it deserves this rebooted version. It is the original rock documentary. Like a showcase of many layers of Dylan and the personas he creates. From the moments he laughs with Bob Neuwirth, to running rings round a journalist from Time Magazine, what Don’t Look Back documents is that the times, they really were a chagin’ and Bob was making that happen.
Don’t Look Back is greatly improved by the transfer to Blu-ray. From the opening chords of Subterranean Homesick Blues, the sound quality is razor sharp. The picture quality is rich and warm. The great thing here though is the hours of extra footage. You’ll be a Dylan scholar by the time you’ve finished this treasure trove of delights and for long-time fans of Dylan, this truly is worth its weight in gold. Stand out moments include an interview with Patti Smith as she details the influence and impact that Don’t look Back has had on her career. ‘Bob Dylan was Arthur Rimbaud alive’ she enthuses. What is evident here is Smith talks like a fan, as she heaps praise on Dylan. ‘I had found my guy’, she states at the beginning. As a viewer, you can see the passion and spirit. There are rich alternate audio takes, of five tracks recorded on the 1965 tour but not included in the original cut. An alternate take of the Subterranean Homesick Blues video (there were three recorded in total), begins with an ambulance siren (an accident?) and shows Dylan in the garden of the Savoy hotel, struggling to hold the cards and Allen Ginsberg, struggling to know where to put his jumper.
Lovers of film in itself are treated to a documentary about the director, which includes the evolution of his work, three shorts and a recording of the 1966 electric tour, with Dylan singing Ballad of a Thin Man and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Normally reissued versions aren’t always worth the money but you will be spoilt for choice here and in the month that Dylan won the Nobel Prize, you owe it to yourself to delve in and relive exactly why he did, just stunning.
Don’t Look Back is out now, via Criterion.