Both a classic documentary and a vital pop-cultural artifact, D.A. Pennebaker's portrait of Bob Dylan captures the seminal singer-songwriter on the cusp of his transformation from folk prophet to rock trendsetter. Shot during Dylan's 1965 British concert tour, Don't Look Back employs an edgy vérité style that was, and is, a snug fit with the artist's own consciously rough-hewn persona. Its handheld black-and-white images and often-gritty London backdrops suggest cinematic extensions of the archetypal monochrome portraits that graced Dylan's career-making early-'60s album jackets.
Pennebaker's access to the legendarily private troubadour enables us to witness Dylan's shifting moods as he performs, relaxes with his entourage (including then lover Joan Baez, road manager Bob Neuwirth, and poker-faced manager Albert Grossman), and jousts with other musicians (notably Animals alumnus Alan Price and Scottish folksinger Donovan), fans, and press. It's a measurement of the filmmaker's acuity that the conversations are often as gripping as Dylan's solo performances. Grossman's machinations with British promoters, Baez's hip serenity, a grizzled British journalist's surrender to the fact of Dylan's artistry, and the artist's own taunting dismissal of a clueless sycophant are all absorbing.
With the exception of the studio recording of "Subterranean Homesick Blues," the live performances (including five newly restored, complete audio tracks excised from the original film but included on the DVD version) are constrained by crude audio gear. Their urgency, however, is timeless, as is Pennebaker's film, a legitimate cornerstone for any serious rock video collection. --Sam Sutherland