DVD Reviews for 3/2: Do Look Back
By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 03/02/07 16:16:20
In which your faithful critic checks out old looks at Bob Dylan and Dracula, a new look at Alexander the Great and once again curses the Indianapolis Colts with every fiber of his being.
For years, “Don’t Look Back,” D.A. Pennebaker’s landmark 1967 cinema verite documentary following Bob Dylan around on a three-week acoustic tour of England in the spring of 1965 (just before he took up the electric guitar and changed the face of rock music forever), has been considered the only film to come close to properly capturing his mystique in cinematic terms, superseding even Dylan’s own “Renaldo and Clara.” With the 2005 release of “No Direction Home,” Martin Scorsese’s acclaimed epic-length documentary of Dylan’s life and art up through 1966, it seemed as if Pennebaker’s film might have lost its status as the true Dylan film in the face of this new contender. However, watching “Don’t Look Back” again recently, I was struck by just how fresh and vital it still felt despite being over 40 years old. While “No Direction Home” is a brilliant film that is a must-see for anyone even vaguely interested in Dylan as both a person and an artist, it is a film that has people looking back at the past and trying to reconcile who they were with who they became. “Don’t Look Back,” on the other hand, lacks that sense of reflection because we are seeing Dylan smack in the middle of what would prove to be a key moment in his career and that immediacy still rings true today. If “No Direction Home” is a stately and detailed biography, “Don’t Look Back” is closer to a ragged snapshot taken on the fly–it may not be particularly elegant but it captures the scene with the intensity of a tattered old photograph that brings back a rush of memories with only a single glance.
The strange thing about the film is the way that it thoroughly violates the unwritten rules of rock documentaries. There are no dramatic underpinnings that Pennebaker attempts to develop into a dramatic through line to tie the scenes together. There are no scenes in which Dylan sits down to speak at length about his songs and what they mean to him. Hell, there aren’t even many scenes of Dylan performing his tunes and of the ones that do pop up, most of them are strangely truncated after only a verse or two. Instead, we are treated to a collage of moments showing the behind-the-scenes madness that surrounded him at the time and how he coped with it. Many scenes in the film find Dylan in perhaps his least favorite situation–sitting in front of a group of reporters demanding that the notoriously oblique singer explain himself in plain English–and getting through it by throwing his interrogators odd and occasionally condescending questions and attitudes right back at them. (That said, I suspect that if Dylan were to watch the film today, he might feel a little bad about the merciless way he grills a student interviewer whose only crime seems to be that he is too earnest for his own good.) At other times, we see him interacting with a couple of groupies (who cheerfully admit that they don’t always understand what he is saying) and goofing off with a backstage entourage including the likes of Joan Baez, Bobby Neuwirth, Alan Price and Allen Ginsburg (although he turns on them as well when someone tosses a glass out of his hotel window). Meanwhile, manager Albert Grossman keeps the show moving from place to place and there is an electrifying sequence in which he slickly negotiates an concert appearance by playing two concerns against each other largely for the benefit of the cameras.
Of the musical moments that do appear in the film, two of them have gone on to become among the most famous in rock movie history. The first is the legendary proto-music video for “Subterranean Homesick Blues” that kicks off the film–the sight of Dylan standing in an alley wrestling with cue cards marked with his intricate wordplay became an instant pop-culture landmark that is still a treat to watch today. The second is the equally famous moment when he finds himself in a hotel room with Donovan, the British folk star whose status as “the new Bob Dylan” follows Dylan around England throughout the film. After some uncomfortable kibitzing, Donovan picks up his guitar and strums out a rendition of his pleasant-but-inconsequential “To Sing for You” to Dylan and his cronies. When it ends, Dylan takes the guitar out of Donovan’s hands and proceeds to offer up an absolutely devastating rendition of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” that shows Donovan’s song for the silly prattle that it is. The kicker is that when the camera cuts back to Donovan at the end of the song, the look on his face shows that even he realizes just how completely Dylan has trumped him and his entire body of work without even breaking a sweat.
Originally released on DVD in 1998, “Don’t Look Back” is being reissued this week in two different versions. The first is a single-disc edition that replicates the extras found on the original version, including a commentary track from Pennebaker and Bob Neuwirth (who served as tour manager), an alternate version of the “Subterranean Homesick Blues” opening and full-length audio recordings of the performances of “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” “Love Minus Zero/No Limit,” “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” and “To Ramona” that are briefly glimpsed in the film. Then there is “1965 Tour Deluxe Edition” that includes that disc, a second disc containing “65 Revisited,” a new documentary by Pennebaker compiled of more of the 20 hours of footage shot for the original film, a reprint of the 1968 book version of the film (basically a dialogue transcript with loads of photos) and a flip-book version of the “Subterranean Homesick Blues” sequence. Regardless of which version you buy (and to be honest, the deluxe edition is probably only for the hard-core fanatic), “Don’t Look Back” is a landmark film that belongs in the permanent collection of anyone even vaguely interested in Dylan and the impact that he continues to have on contemporary culture.
Directed by D.A. Pennebaker. Starring Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Bob Neuwirth, Alan Grossman and Donovan. 1967. Unrated. 96 minutes. A New Video Group release. $19.95/$49.95
NEW AND NOTABLE
ALEXANDER REVISITED (Warner Home Video. $24.98): In what may seem like an excessive moves even for its few genuine admirers, Oliver Stone revisits his bizarrely miscalculated 2004 epic on the life of Alexander the Great to give us a third version with over 30 minutes of new footage added including more sexuality, more violence and a graphic depiction of what happens when an elephant stomps on a man’s head. The result still doesn’t help that much but this new cut does play better than the others–there is a flow to the material that didn’t exist in the earlier cuts–and to be honest, I suppose that in hindsight, I prefer its utter screwiness to the blandness of the likes of “World Trade Center.”
CRIME BUSTERS/SUPER FUZZ (Somerville House. $14.98 each): If you had cable in the early 1980's, it is more than likely that you saw these very silly Italian-made cop comedies a lot. The former has Terrence Hill and Bud Spencer, in one of the 18 films they did together, as a pair of bumbling crooks who wind up on the right side of the law when their attempted robbery of a grocery store instead lands them in a police recruitment office. The latter finds Hill (without Spencer but with the likes of Ernest Borgnine and Joanne Dru) as a bumbling cop who becomes a bumbling superhero when he develops mysterious powers after being caught in a nuclear explosion. Although it is unlikely that either will greatly amuse anyone whose age has reached double digits, I would cheerfully take either of them over the likes of “Reno 911: Miami.”
A GOOD YEAR (Fox Home Entertainment. $29.99): Although visually spectacular (thanks to the exquisite landscapes of the French wine country and co-stars Marion Cotillard and Abbie Cornish), this allegedly whimsical comedy, a decidedly strange reunion for director Ridley Scott and star Russell Crowe, about an investment banker learning to stop and smell the roses after inheriting his uncle’s vineyard in Provence is tries so hard to be light and frothy that the strain kills whatever charm it might have had.
JESS FRANCO’S COUNT DRACULA (Dark Sky Films. $19.98): Of course, Bram Stoker might have something to say about that. In this umpteenth version of the old warhorse, the insanely prolific Franco teams with a better-than-usual cast–including Christopher Lee in the title role, Herbert Lom as Van Helsing, Klaus Kinski as Renfield and Franco muse Soledad Miranda as Lucy–for a moody retelling that actually comes closer to recreating the original book than most of the other adaptations. Not necessarily recommended for newcomers to “Dracula” or Franco but those with a professed interest in either one should give it a look.
NFL SUPER BOWL XLI–INDIANAPOLIS COLTS CHAMPIONSHIP DVD (Warner Home Video. $24.98): Crap. What I mean to say is. . .ah, crap!
THE RETURN (Universal Home Video. $24.98): In this agonizingly dull trek into Shyalmalan territory, Sarah Michelle Gellar plays a young woman who visits a small Texas town in order to get to the bottom of a series of mysterious visions that she has been having. Only pick this one up if you are an insatiable Gellar fanatic (and her lackluster performance here may well cure you of that) or if you prefer your thrillers to come without any actual thrills.
STRANGER THAN FICTION (Sony Home Entertainment. $28.98): Essentially a Charlie Kaufman film for people who don’t quite get Charlie Kaufman films but wish that they did, Will Ferrell plays a drab dope who wakes up one morning to the realization that he is actually a character in a book and that the author (Emma Thompson) plans on killing him off. Alas, neither screenwriter Zach Helm nor director Marc Foster seem to have actually thought the sem-clever idea through and the result is a drab meta-movie that not even the bright cast (which also include Maggie Gyllenhaal and Dustin Hoffman) can quite manage to save from a case of terminal whimsy.
TENACIOUS D AND THE PICK OF DESTINY (New Line Home Entertainment. $27.98): This cult-film-by design, which chronicles the formation of the joke-rock duo formed by Jack Black and Kyle Gass and their quest to find a sacred guitar pick with Satanic powers, starts off with a brilliant mini-opera sequence (featuring Meat Loaf, Ronnie James Dio and the best “Hollywood” joke since “1941") and then spend the next 80 minutes trying and failing to live up to the promise of the first six.
TIDELAND (Thinkfilm. $27.98): Although roasted by critics and ignored by audiences during its brief release last year, Terry Gilliam’s grim fairy tale about a young girl (Jodelle Ferland, in a great performance) who copes with unimaginable real-life horrors by retreating into an imagination populated by clever squirrels and talking doll heads. Although not for everyone–as Gilliam himself admits in a prologue that he tacked on just before the film went into release–it is a one-of-a-kind work that deserves to be seen. (Those of you who have admired “Pan’s Labyrinth” may find some intriguing parallels between the two films.) The extras include a Gilliam commentary, a collection of deleted scenes and a feature-length documentary on the making of the film.