Music DVD Reviews: Review of Bob Dylan: Don't Look Back

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Buy your copy from Bob Dylan: Don't Look Back (1965 Tour Deluxe Edition)starstarstarstarstarLabel: Docurama
Released: 2007

Whether or not you like Bob Dylan, the world's a better place because of him. Whether you're in the "he's a genius songwriter and an even better performer" camp or you favor the "flawed eccentric with a funny-sounding voice" point of view, you just cannot debate his contribution to pop culture. Along with the Beatles and the Memphis/Motown/Muscle Shoals soul screamers, Dylan turned music on its ear in the early 1960s. He gave it a conscience, making rock relevant at a time when Pat Boone, Annette Funicello, and any number of mindless sock-hop frauds ruled the charts.

Without Dylan there's no politics in the Clash. The Pogues and Billy Bragg's postpunk political rants would have run more along the lines of "tastes great vs. less filling" instead of taking up the cause of the working-class struggle. Neil Young, Van Morrison, even U2 would likely have concentrated more on navel-gazing and less on social issues. A million singer-songwriters' careers would have died on the vine; Tracy Chapman would be mixing up lattes in the Harvard Square Dunkin' Donuts today if Dylan didn't blaze his trail. And certainly Jesus Jones would not have sung about Bob Dylan not singing about you in "Right Here, Right Now" if it weren't for Bob Dylan, right?

Which brings us to “Don't Look Back.” This repackaging of the groundbreaking rockumentary – following Dylan through his 1965 tour of England, right before he controversially electrified his live show – presents the critic with several thorny issues. First, is it so hyper-cool to watch the chain-smoking, nattily attired Dylan and his colleagues because they were playing (for the times) cutting-edge music? Or is it (for the times) the cutting-edge film technique, black-and-white cinema-verite? Or some combination of the two? And really what does that matter, because Dylan fans already know what this movie's about. So does the new package bring enough new stuff to the table?

The questions are tough, but the answers are not. First, the packaging is phenomenal. The book accompanying the box set explains a lot of key details in the movie, if you follow along as it plays. Commentary from the director D.A. Pennebaker and road manager Bob Neuwirth often digresses into impossibly boring film-geek jargon, but they do interject enough new background on the music, moments, and characters in Dylan's posse that it's worth listening to. The sound's updated for 2007, so your fancy home theater system won't sound like a third-rate art-film house anymore when you play “Don't Look Back.” The outtakes, compiled into a new movie called “65 Tour Revisited,” yield some good new supporting material, and — for the Dylan diehards — much more music than the original film offers. As in, full stage performances of "To Ramona," "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll," "It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue," "Love Minus Zero/No Limit," and "It Ain’t Me, Babe." Discerning Bullz-Eye fans will not miss the cameo by a pre-Velvets Nico, one smolderingly hot ticket back in the day. Probably coolest of all, the bonus DVD contains two alternate versions of the famous “Don't Look Back” opening "Subterranean Homesick Blues" video. And as for the chicken-and-egg conversation of why this low-tech film is so mysteriously cool, no one gives a crap, so the answer's immaterial. People are used to consuming jumpy, unscripted, rough-cut video in this YouTube era, and this is how the young, fiery Dylan was captured on film. End of discussion.

For the most part, the DVDs show Dylan at his best, performing onstage and interacting one-on-one with fans, and at his unvarnished worst, getting pissy with reporters and with drunken hangers-on in his hotel room. You get it all – which is, I guess, justification enough to revisit this classic rock artwork with a new reissue package.

~Mojo Flucke, Ph.D.