Arguably more cinema vérité than documentary, D.A. Pennebakerís Donít Look Back follows four weeks of Bob Dylanís solo acoustic tour across England in 1965. Virtually absent are the standard documentary conventions of archival or interview footage. Nor is the film a concert picture, with very few live numbers captured in their entirety, and more than half of the film following Dylan backstage and between gigs. Instead the camera acts solely as a fly on the wall and for 96 minutes the viewer watches Dylan ongoing evolution as performer and personality. Hereís hoping heís evolved since.

A casual Dylan fan, I was anxious to see Donít Look Back in the hope of gaining insight into Dylan, an enigmatic figure to say the least, at an incredible point in his career, on the eve of the release of Highway 61 Revisited and just one year before he "went electric" during the legendary "Royal Albert Hall" concert. I was disappointed so quickly; not in the film, but in the man himself.

Deliberately aloof and antagonistic, Dylanís interactions with the press stand out as the most memorable moments of this film. It is almost painful to watch Dylan revealed as an immature, ego-inflated, even cruel individual, who seems wholly consumed with appearing to be clever and incomprehensible at the same time. "I know more about what you do just by looking at you than you'll ever be able to know about me," Dylan tells a Time Magazine reporter in one especially unflattering scene.

While creating an image in the press of one who could not care less about writing hits, another side of Dylan is revealed in Donít Look Back as several scenes expose a preoccupation with chart standings of his singles and the popularity of his "competitors," notably Donovan, who makes several appearances in the film (and whose record, the DVD commentary reveals, Dylan regularly listened to during the tour). Another discouraging moment is highlighted when manager Albert Grossman, representing this "man of the people," and another agent swindle the BBC, playing them against another broadcast company to up the fee for a Dylan appearance.

Still, there are wonderful moments in Donít Look Back, all of them musical and all intimate. Two Hank Williams songs played by Dylan and Joan Baez (who accompanied him on the tour) surpass any of the concert numbers in the film in terms of raw emotion and musical beauty. Another scene (and probably the only archival footage in the film) of Dylanís cotton field performance of "Only a Pawn in Their Game" lays bare Dylanís debt to Woody Guthrie and does more to convey his power as a folk singer than anything filmed in the Royal Albert Hall. I admire Donít Look Back for its honest portrayal of Dylan (as honest a portrayal as one can expect from an exploding star acutely aware heís being filmed). I do not expect that this film would hold the attention of those uninterested in Dylan as the music takes a back seat to the personality, which starts off merely irritating and winds up almost unlikable. The final few minutes of Donít Look Back, however, provide some redemption for Dylan. Following the Royal Albert Hall show, the final stop on the tour, Dylan seems to finally be letting his mask down. He smiles. "There was something special about that," Dylan says as though, for the first time, he is beginning to reconcile his dual existence as both poet and pop star.

The DVD version of Donít Look Back looks and sounds superb, considering that the source material is considerably grainy and dark with audio of sometimes crude quality; this re-release, transferred from a 1998 restoration and Pennebakerís point-and-shoot handheld direction went on to set the standard for music documentaries to follow. Fans will also undoubtedly be thrilled with five previously unreleased bonus audio tracks recorded during the tour. Other features include full-length commentary from D.A. Pennebaker and tour road manager, Bob Neuwirth, as well as an alternate version of the "Subterranean Homesick Blues" cue card scene, original theatrical trailer, and an illustrated Dylan discography.

Mark Nichols
williejoeshaver@yahoo.com

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