Don’t Look Back: Deluxe Edition, the rerelease of D.A. Pennebaker’s ‘67 documentary, arrives in a box as thick as your average Charles Dickens novel. The film — an impressionistic look at Bob Dylan’s 1965 England tour, shot in black and white, with Dylan frequently in black moods and nearly always exhibiting white-hot creative power — remains a mesmerizing document. It’s artfully, intentionally casual, ”sloppy” only in the sense of tricking you into thinking it was made up on the spot in the way the newly electric Dylan was making up a fresh definition of rock stardom, and the film reveals new details with every viewing. (I had never caught, for example, that after Dylan sings ”It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” in a hotel room, the British Dylan wannabe Donovan murmurs fawningly, improbably, ”I used to know a girl named Baby Blue.”)
Pennebaker’s 16mm handheld camera doesn’t merely follow Dylan on stage, where, solo with acoustic guitar and harmonica, he bleats out an array of songs including some that would soon change rock history with Bringing It All Back Home. It also captures Dylan interacting with the public: joking sweetly with teen female fans; tearing a student journalist a new one just because he can (Dylan’s deadpan cruelty is as devastating as some of his music). And the film takes you into London business offices, where Dylan’s malicious-cherub manager, Albert Grossman, is caught jacking up his client’s concert fee with sour skill.
If you compare Don’t Look Back with Martin Scorsese’s superb, more conventionally structured No Direction Home (2005), which spans decades with masterful ease, you might be tempted to downgrade Don’t Look Back’s achievement. But it’s apples and oranges. Pennebaker was creating a new form of documentary on the fly, a method he’d pursue in rock docs like Monterey Pop (1968) and his really-needs-a-DVD-distributor Town Bloody Hall (1979), about a feminism debate between Norman Mailer and Germaine Greer.
Yet Don’t Look Back doesn’t benefit from its ”65 Tour Deluxe Edition” padding. The second disc of outtakes doesn’t add anything to our understanding of Dylan; the ”companion book” is a transcript of the dialogue; the photo flip-book of the famous opening — Dylan’s flash-card version of ”Subterranean Homesick Blues” — is pointlessly cutesy. The commentary by Pennebaker and road manager Bob Neuwirth (Dylan’s longtime friend) is too kindly, softening the hard edges of Dylan’s temper to no good purpose. But nothing can minimize Dylan in top form, as when he tells a stupefied reporter, ”I’m just as good a singer as Caruso.” That this both is and is not true, simultaneously, is one aspect of what makes Dylan great. Buy the remastered single-disc edition to look back in awe. B