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BACKTRACKING

Dylan '65: A deluxe look back

February 20, 2007|Robert Hilburn | Special to The Times

The greatest rock movie ever, D.A. Pennebaker's "Don't Look Back," just got better.

Ever since the black-and-white documentary of Bob Dylan's 1965 solo tour of England was first shown in theaters in 1967, it has been widely hailed as the most compelling look ever at what it's like to be at the absolute center of pop attention.

The key to the film's impact is that director Pennebaker didn't approach Dylan with the standard documentary game plan. Rather than interview Dylan or recap his story, Pennebaker focused on how forces such as fans, journalists and other artists speed toward pop heroes like heat-seeking missiles.

In the process, we see Dylan both amused and put off by the whirlwind. He shows little interest when an official wants to present him with an award, yet he later pores over the pop papers, curious about what has been written about him.

Though the film has long been available on DVD, the new collection, titled "Bob Dylan: Don't Look Back/65 Tour Deluxe Edition," contains a new, remastered version as well as several marvelous features, including a commentary track featuring both Pennebaker and Bob Neuwirth, who was Dylan's tour manager and buddy.

In addition, Pennebaker has gone through hours of outtakes to put together a second feature, the hourlong "Bob Dylan 65 Revisited." It offers a second commentary track and more music from the tour, including a glorious version of one of Dylan's early masterpieces, the evocative "To Ramona."

"I was never interested in educating people about Dylan," Pennebaker told me when the film was rereleased in theaters in 1983. "First of all, I don't know enough about him. Who does? Besides, that's Dylan's business. If he wanted to educate people, I'm sure he knows how to do it. What I wanted to do was just be present when Dylan enacted his whole life and show you what he deals with and what interests him."

Dylan has shared his feelings increasingly in recent years, notably in his excellent memoir "Bob Dylan Chronicles Volume One." But "Don't Look Back" takes us back to a time when he was less sure about he wanted us to know about him. One reason is that he was probably trying to figure out things himself. The brilliance of the film is that it shows that uncertainty.

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Bob Dylan

"Bob Dylan: Don't Look Back/

65 Deluxe Tour Edition"

Docurama

The back story: Pennebaker had already done a series of highly regarded films when Dylan's manager, Albert Grossman, invited him to document the singer's four-week acoustic tour. The jaunt began in April, just three months before Dylan would cause a sensation at the Newport Folk Festival by performing with a fiery rock 'n' roll band, saying goodbye to the gentler folk style of the British tour.

Pennebaker's strength was trusting his instincts. As he explains in the commentary track, he didn't try to outline the movie beforehand. He simply filmed moments that interested him, including Dylan sitting around singing Hank Williams songs with Joan Baez and Neuwirth, working out lyrics to a new song on a typewriter and meeting with the press.

While disarmingly polite with young fans, Dylan often appeared testy or sarcastic when interviewed. He's clearly having fun with a reporter at an airport press conference:

Reporter: "Would you say you cared about people particularly?"

Dylan: "Well, yeah, but you know ... I mean, we all have our definitions of all those words ... 'care' and 'people.' "

Reporter: "Well, but surely we know what people are."

Dylan: "Do we?"

The most contentious scene involves Dylan addressing a Time magazine correspondent later in the film. To an outsider, it has always seemed as if Dylan was bullying the reporter with such lines as, "I'm not really a folk singer and [I could] explain to you why, but you wouldn't really understand. All you could do [would be] nod your head."

In the commentary, Pennebaker and Neuwirth both say Dylan was trying to speak honestly, even sympathetically to the reporter.

That's part of the magic and allure of Dylan: the way his music and persona invite multiple interpretations. As Pennebaker said in the 1983 interview, "Everyone sees what happened differently, and it wasn't my business to interpret him."

Bonus features: Aside from the performance footage, the most interesting moments in the new companion film involve Dylan playing new material on the piano for Tom Wilson, his record producer. The package also includes a reprint of the "Don't Look Back" paperback, with its transcript of the dialogue and photos from the film. The commentary tracks offer more sidelights than show-stopping revelations, but the chance to revisit the tour with Pennebaker and Neuwirth adds to the remarkably personal nature of the film.

The deluxe edition will be released next Tuesday with a retail list price of $45. The film alone will also be released in a single-disc package that day with a suggested price of $19.95. The single disc is a bargain; the double disc set is a joy.

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Backtracking, a biweekly feature, highlights CD reissues and other historical pop works.

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