A Deserving Look Back at Dylan

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 23, 2007

Filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker's "Bob Dylan: Dont Look Back 1965 Tour Deluxe Edition" ($49.95) is timed to the 40th anniversary of the movie Roger Ebert says "invented the rock documentary."

Available Tuesday, the box set includes Pennebaker's seminal 1967 film, first released on DVD in 2000 with such extras as commentary by Pennebaker and tour road manager Bob Neuwirth. Now there's a second disc, "Bob Dylan 65 Revisited," compiled by Pennebaker from 20 hours of never-seen footage, with more Pennebaker-Neuwirth commentary; there's also a reproduction of the 1968 companion paperback and an oh-so-cool flipbook offering a frame-by-frame version of the film's iconic opening sequence: deadpan Dylan in an alley, tossing cue cards with selected words and phrases from "Subterranean Homesick Blues," his first truly electric song.

Each DVD includes an alternative version of what many have called the first modern music video. One has Dylan in a London park, not quite on top of turning the cue cards in time to the music. The second finds him on a chilly rooftop, where a lot more than answers, my friend, were blowin' in the wind.

"The first take was in a garden, and a cop came, and we were fighting him off as the thing transpired," Pennebaker says during a phone interview. "Then we went to the alley [behind London's Savoy Hotel] to get away from the cop. And then for some reason, we went on the roof of the hotel. The wind was blowing, and it took about half of the cue cards all over London -- they just fell out of the sky."

Oh, to have found the one that said "Wind Blows."

Pennebaker was hired to document 23-year-old Dylan's three-week solo tour of England in spring 1965, which turned out to be Dylan's final acoustic tour: He'd go electric at the Newport Folk Festival that July and had already released "Bringing It All Back Home," one side acoustic, the other electric, a harbinger of the seismic shift his music was about to take with "Highway 61 Revisited" and "Blonde on Blonde."

Pennebaker himself was at the forefront of cinema verite-style documentaries made possible by new, more portable cameras and recording technology; the DVD commentaries serve as primers about the early days of what Pennebaker calls "direct cinema." Those hand-held cameras allowed Pennebaker to unobtrusively capture Dylan's ever-shifting moods as he performed or when he relaxed with an entourage that included Neuwirth, irascible manager Albert Grossman and then-lover Joan Baez (a relationship that disintegrated halfway through the tour). No interviews, no narration -- just the events themselves -- and Dylan comes off as brilliant, engaging and humorous, but also arrogant, condescending and confrontational, particularly with a clueless British press.

"He didn't ask for any changes, though he might have been uncomfortable with some of the things in there," Pennebaker says of Dylan, who would never again be as accessible. "I don't think you could make a film about any well-known rock star like that again."

Surprisingly, there's not a lot of music in the original film, mostly snippets, with no full song. That, Pennebaker says, shows "my own lack of vision about what the music was like at the time I made 'Dont Look Back.' I felt if people wanted to hear the music, they could go buy the records. Not a very good idea, but at the time, that's where I was at. In the first film, I didn't want to have whole songs -- I wanted it not to be a musical film, but to be about a musician. It was all very Ibsen-ish. When we went back to look at it, looking at outtakes, what amazed me was the charisma that he had singing those songs and how great the songs were." Where the 2000 DVD added five complete audio tracks, the new edition shows Dylan fooling around with "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry" and "I'll Keep It With Mine" on the piano, along with a half-dozen full concert performances.

"Bob Dylan 1965 Revisited" also shows Dylan being much more generous with his fans than the original film suggested. To use Pennebaker's word, he seems to be "acting" less, and he's certainly less caustic and more gregarious, nuances rediscovered among the 50,000 feet of film shot in 1965.

"We did quite a bit of work because of the 40th anniversary," Pennebaker says, including a high-definition transfer from a new digital master (resulting in a clearer, brighter picture) and some audio tweaking, though the classic shot-in-natural-light graininess is still evident. Before "Dont Look Back" was released, Pennebaker filmed Dylan's 1966 tour of England with the Band, briefly circulated in 1972 as "Eat the Document" before being pulled out of circulation by Dylan, who was the producer-director that time around and chose not to release it. A good amount of Pennebaker's color footage was used in Martin Scorsese's 2005 Dylan documentary, "No Direction Home," and Pennebaker says he "was happy to see it get out. I hated the idea of it sitting in a warehouse somewhere drying up." As to whether "Eat the Document" will ever be officially released, he says, "my sense is that everything comes out sooner or later."

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