D.A. Pennbaker still remembers the man with the wiry gray hair and the sunglasses, sitting across from him in his office and posing an innocent enough question. “He asked, ‘Would you like to come along on a tour with my client? His name is Bob Dylan.’ It sort of rang a bell.” The 90-year-old filmmaker lets out a raspy chuckle before continuing to speak at his customary rapid clip. “He had one song, ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’,’ that had been playing on the radio and that’s about all I knew. But I’d just done this 15-minute film on a jazz vocalist, Dave Lambert…and at that moment, I’d been sort of making these shorts and then putting them in a box, because there was no market for them. So when Albert [Grossman, Dylan’s manager] brought up this tour, I thought, ‘Oh, another musician. Here’s my chance.’ And maybe that would be the start of something.”
History will confirm that yes, it was most definitely the start of something. Pennebaker would accompany the then–23-year-old singer-songwriter to England for a brief 1965 spring tour, bringing along his customized sync-sound 16mm camera and capturing several Dylan performances — as well as lots of backstage banter, backroom deals, after-party shenanigans, press conferences, put-downs, temper tantrums, rabid fans and one of the most uncomfortable troubadour-vs.-troubadour encounters ever caught on celluloid. The result, released two years later under the title Don’t Look Back, would become the definitive visual portrait of the artist as he prepared to go from folksinging poet/prophet to pop-music gamechanger. It would also create the template for the modern rock documentary and become one of the single most influential movies of all time.
Some 50 years after its creation, Pennebaker’s fly-on-the-wall time capsule still seems remarkably fresh — and courtesy of Criterion’s recent bells-and-whistles release of the movie, Don’t Look Back now sounds, per Pennebaker himself, “better than when I initially recorded and shot it.” A labor of love for producer Kim Hendrickson (who’d been involved with the movie’s inaugural DVD release at another company back in 1999), the new edition includes a previous commentary track with the filmmaker and tour manager/Dylan partner-in-crime Bob Neuwirth, and 65 Revisited, Pennebaker’s odds-ends-and-outtakes movie that was part of a 2006 box set. But it also features a smattering of key early works from the direct-cinema pioneer, including the aforementioned jazz-musician short Lambert & Co. (1964); new testimonials with Patti Smith and writer Greil Marcus; and Snapshots From the Tour, a collection of Back sequences left on the cutting-room floor.
But it’s the audio restoration that genuinely makes the new DVD/Blu-ray stick out, thanks to a painstaking process that would help correct earlier mixes of the movie, which tended to employ a “fake stereo” set-up that panned the mono tracks. (Listen to the “Subterranean Homesick Blues” opening on previous DVD releases, and you can hear the bass line bouncing back and forth between your speakers.) That meant going back to quarter-inch magnetic master tapes in Pennebaker’s vaults — what Criterion audio supervisor Ryan Hullings calls the “holy grail” of Don’t Look Back materials. “D.A. had stored them properly since day one, so they were in excellent physical condition,” he relates via email. “The problem was that those tapes used a special version of Fairchild Sync, which was only used for a very, very brief time in the mid-Sixties…and modern tape heads can’t read it. I looked all over New York for someone who could transfer the audio, so I wouldn’t have to ship these priceless materials out of the state, and no one could play them.”