50 Years Later: Bob Dylan's Dont Look Back on Blu-Ray

As iconic as it remains a full half-century later, when Bob Dylan: Dont Look Back was being shot by director D.A. Pennebaker during the Bard’s whirlwind acoustic tour of England in May 1965, there were literally no rules to follow. “It’s the idea of the home movie, the kind of movie that was always made by one person,” says Pennebaker, still as sharp as ever at age 90. “I had gotten the notion in my head not to make a pure music film. I decided to make it about him, right at the time he was trying to figure out who he was.”

It’s beyond understatement to say Dont Look Back (apostrophe very deliberately missing) set the bar for rock and pop-culture documentaries, a style that’s still very much followed today. “That’s the way it’s all done now,” Pennebaker agrees. “I stuck the recorder in the middle of the room and turned it on, and I just hoped for the best.”

Thanks to the level of trust Dylan granted Pennebaker on that myth-making May 1965 tour, Dont Look Back, which first hit theaters in May 1967, shows the folk poet creating the legend in real time while being very much entrenched in his element: sometimes relaxed and playful, other times mischievous and challenging, and always absolutely riveting onstage during performance. “I think it interested him that I paid so much attention to him,” Pennebaker theorizes. “I filmed a lot of songs and concerts just by myself. I filmed bits of the songs, but I recorded all of the songs, so we have audio for all of them.”

To celebrate the documentary’s golden anniversary, The Criterion Collection has done it again with a director-approved special edition that contains a restored 4K transfer and a slew of new extras, as well as restored monaural sound taken from Pennebaker’s original quarter-inch magnetic masters, presented uncompressed on Blu-ray. Here, D.A. and I discuss how he captured the sound for the film, how it came across to theatergoers, and his view of movie surround sound. Give the anarchist a cigarette—D.A. is out of the basement, but still mixing up the medicine.

MM: OK, D.A., we will have to look back, despite the title. The audio quality of the film is quite good, even though you had to catch as catch can. For this Blu-ray version, you went back to the quarter-inch magnetic masters, right?

DAP: Yeah, yeah. It took better equipment to do it. A friend of Dylan’s was doing the sound most of the time [Jones Alk, then wife of filmmaker and Dylan associate Howard Alk, who was also present]. Jones was terrific. You never see her with a mic or see her taping, because she was so sly and so good at it.

MM: We have so many broad sonic choices now. How did you handle constructing the movie’s soundtrack?

DAP: Surround sound didn’t exist at that time, of course. I was thinking about what to do to get this in the theater, because most of the theaters weren’t even set up right. The speakers didn’t work very well, so I went for what I call “car stereo”—just left–right.

I had to mix it myself in New York, because there were no studios that could mix stereo. About a year after it had been released, somebody said they were making a 4- or 5-track stereo mix of the film, and they’d do a reel for us to see what we’d think. I was interested to see how it sounded. In their studio, it sounded great.

We sent the reel down to a place in New York where the film was playing, and the guy called up and said, “Take this out of here.

I don’t want to hear it again, because the audience is revolting!” They had gotten so used to the other sound that when you put in all this “fancy” stuff, they hated it! I don’t know where that thread [mix] is, but it’s hidden away somewhere.

MM: And when quad came in, a lot of people had a hard time handling it.

DAP: I know. I think it got too complicated and lost some of the general uncertainty that good music should always have. You should wonder what the next note or sound will be. It should take you by surprise a little bit. When it gets too technically proficient, it loses that for me.

Studio: The Criterion Collection
Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1
Audio Format: LPCM 1.0
Length: 96 mins.
Director: D.A. Pennebaker
Starring: Bob Dylan, Bob Neuwirth, Joan Baez, Donovan, Albert Grossman, Alan Price

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