As Criterion UK prepares to release Don’t Look Back in a newly restored 4K transfer, we take a look at a fascinating portrait of Bob Dylan, that reveals every complex nuance of the folk legend for better and for worse.
Groundbreaking at its time and still a fascinating and rewarding piece of cinema, Don’t Look Back follows Bob Dylan on his 1965 UK tour, the year before the infamous “Judas” incident and his last as an acoustic artist.
Documentary filmmaker D. A. Pennebaker mixes live footage with moments of backstage chat and unsuccessful attempts by interviewers to tease meaning from Dylan about his songs, his lyrics and his beliefs.
Shot handheld on black and white 60mm film, Don’t Look Back opens with what will later become the video for ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ and the remaining footage contains no narration, no facts, no dates, no information. Just an enthralling and rare opportunity to sit and witness the man performing legitimately iconic renditions of ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’ and ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’ and hanging out backstage with his friends and cohorts.
The clips of Dylan, Joan Baez and Donovan playing and singing between performances are lovely and display a fantastic intimacy. Likewise the tour footage is magical, engrossing and shows the scale of Dylan’s power at the time.
As Dylan begins the tour and is greeted by the most terribly British of British reporters, he’s fairly amenable and pleasant. However, as the tour rolls on, he becomes more and more acerbic and challenging. He starts out cocksure and tricky – but by the end of the film he comes across as a difficult little prick.
In one scene we watch Dylan tear into a young ‘science student’ who is hoping to get an interview with Dylan for his student newspaper. All the while Dylan’s cronies in the room laugh at the poor guy like playground bullies as Dylan slyly takes him down piece by piece. It’s uncomfortable and revelatory.
Those who have long held the belief that Dylan is an ethical voice full of complexity and intelligence may be in for shock to find out that he’s also an arrogant, acrimonious little git. From interrupting Alan Price while he’s playing piano, to awkwardly asking him about why he left The Animals, to then making snide comments about other poets, Dylan’s initial shyness mutates into surliness. Later Dylan lectures a reporter about how amazing a singer he is and how he doesn’t need the papers – he made it without them – and that all reporters are liars.
Joan Baez shines in her brief moments, exuding pure heart and gentleness and that spine melting voice. It does make you wonder as you sit and watch Dylan angrily demanding to know who threw a glass out of their hotel window or the fact that he allows his manager to treat everyone with such contempt, why Baez hangs around with him so much.
One of the most fascinating things about Don’t Look Back is the contrast between the gorgeous, moodily lit and beautifully clear stage performances of a musician I’ve known and loved my whole life, and these contrasting backstage scenes.
Overall Don’t Look Back is a wonderfully shot, glorious documentary. Incredibly revealing without spoon-feeding you loads of information. It bravely maintains the ‘fly on the wall’ aspect at all times, and the footage is largely unedited, so we intimately witness Dylan’s pig headed arrogance. But it’s a small price to pay to also witness his genius at work. Perhaps it’s safer to look from a distance.
Don’t Look Back is released by Criterion on Monday 17th October.