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Tuesday, November 24, 2015

New On Video: Down and Dirty Dylan in Don’t Look Back

Posted By on Tue, Nov 24, 2015 at 12:00 PM


My two oldest brothers were huge Bob Dylan fans when I was growing up. (They still are.) The first song I can remember identifying at a very young age was Dylan’s "Ballad of a Thin Man," probably due to my brother Tom singing it and countless others around the house. As such, I probably saw D.A. Pennebaker’s 1967 Don’t Look Back, a documentary of Bob Dylan’s 1965 UK tour, which the Criterion Collection is releasing on Blu-ray this week, at a younger age than might have been strictly appropriate. And it certainly never looked as good as this shiny 4K restoration. (Also, though the official spelling of the first word of the title is Dont, not Don't, I just cant.)     

Although it was shot in the UK and featured a performer most closely associated with New York, Don't Look Back has a strong Bay Area connection. According to Pennebaker, he was unable to find a distributor for the film for a couple of years and was finally approached by a distributor who was looking to get out of the porn business, and who thought it would be perfect because "it looks like a porn film, but it’s not." As a result, Don’t Look Back had its premiere at our own Presidio Theatre. Also, the Presidio used to show porn. Go figure. (It’ll also be one of the many theaters in town showing The Force Awakens, so whether it’s still out of the porn business is a matter of debate.)

Don’t Look Back follows an alternatively nonplussed and annoyed Bob Dylan has he makes his way through England, dealing with the press, fans, and hangers-on. Though there’s never any question that he knows he’s on camera, there’s never the sense that Dylan is trying to show his best side or make the film into a tribute to his own awesomeness. Indeed, it was shot at a time that Dylan was actively trying to dismantle his own myth as the "voice of a generation."

He spars with the press throughout the film, partially because they often ask him condescending questions, such as whether the kids these days can possibly understand his songs.

Because Pennebaker used a tiny, personally modified camera that nobody parsed as an honest-to-goodness movie camera — let alone that he was shooting a film that would continue to be watched and studied 50 years later — he got to be the fly on the wall of many interesting time capsules. I’m personally horrified by how critics used to phone in their reviews right after the show. Occasionally I’ll see a movie on Monday night and have to have the review in by Tuesday at noon, and even that feels like a herculean task.

The proto-goth girls whom the critic describes as "all eyeshadow and undertaker makeup" sadly do not appear in the film, but at the risk of creeping on a woman who was born at least a half-century before me, I must confess that I’ve had a crush on the "Pinch me!" girl for a long time. I don’t know what it is about young English women in the mid-1960s — she’s from Liverpool, to be precise — but they tend to be prettier than just about any other time in history.

And then there’s poor Joan Baez, for whom Don’t Look Back functions as a something of a document of her breakup with Dylan. It was aided in no small part by Dylan’s tour manager and best broheim Bob Neuwirth, who’s just an unconscionable dick to her (which is of no concern either way to Dylan). Not long after this scene, she disappears from the film. Bob Neuwirth and D.A. Pennebaker provide an audio commentary, but during this scene, they have nothing to say about what a huge nozzle Neuwirth was. Also, Baez describes herself as "fagging out," which has a different meaning then than it does now (it was a slang for being sleepy) and which I can type in 2015 because I’m queer.

Dylan gets into a lot of famous spats in Don’t Look Back, the most famous one being him tearing into hapless Time reporter Horace Freeland Judson. This kind of thing is among the reasons why I try my best to avoid celebrity interviews. Like, in 2013 I had the opportunity to interview Tom Hanks in person during a press junket for Captain Phillips, but I just know I would have caught him on a bad day — and any actor will tell you that doing a press junket automatically qualifies as a bad day — and he would have torn into me like Dylan does here, replacing the words "Time Magazine" with "SF Weekly."

But that’s just me looking back, and by all accounts, I shouldn’t do that.

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Sherilyn Connelly


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