Obviously if we did not look back, Mr. Dylan would have no buyers for this deluxe edition documentary of the legendary 1965 tour of England. Fortunately New Video and Docudrama.com saw fit to ignore him, too, and created the two disc set.
One of the most arresting moments is the few minutes standing in front of a reporter phoning in his review of Dylan's performance -- Imagine! holding the camera still -- Imagine! not faxing or emailing it in. In an old-fashioned PHONE BOOTH - not with a cellphone. Just one camera throughout the film, unheard of. Long takes, no cuts. We may as well have been there, for cryin out loud. The excerpt goes like this:
'He is not so much singing as sermonizing; his tragedy perhaps is that the audience is preoccupied with song. So the bearded boys and the lank-haired girls, all eye shadow and undertaker makeup, applaud the songs and miss perhaps the sermons. They are there; they are 'with it'. But how remote they really are from sit-ins and strikes and scabs and life.
"The times they are a-changing" sings Dylan. They are when a poet and not a pop singer fills a hall.'
-- the reporter calls in, complete with punctuation marks.
It isn't only the lack of technical gadgetry, or the bare-bones immediacy of the documentary of the tour, that bring back an era. It is also this mastery of the English language even in so prosaic a task as a concert review. To me, the reporter was just as much a poet (in his own small, ephemeral way) as the subject of the film, the riveting and brilliant Bob Dylan.
"I thought it was an advance over poetry" one man opines halfway thru the movie. The sentences, if there are actual sentences, do not parse. They are more like stream-of-consciousness phrases in the mode of James Joyce, or a verbal collage. But they borrow a lot from folk artists like Arlo Guthrie to comment on civil rights issues.
He sings about "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll", a servant who was struck and killed by her employer's cane. He sings of Medgar Evers. He sings of poverty and rich people who do not care that there are poor people.
In some ways Dylan is a shorter "Man in Black". Whereas Johnny Cash sings about Johnny Yuma and Ira Hayes, and everyone who never got a fair shake, Dylan fed the engine of the civil rights movement.
"I could tell you I'm not a folk singer" Dylan explains to a Time magazine reporter. "And explain to you why, but you wouldn't really understand why," he berates him, not really giving the reporter a chance.
Then he really digs into Time magazine. "I don't read Time or Newsweek to find out what's going on." …(and this is where he endears himself to internet news mavens) "they have too much to lose by printing the truth."
The first disc is the original concert documentary released in 1968. The second disc is outtakes and the making of the documentary. The filmmakers explain why they used black and white film, and show the process of making music -- writing down bits of songs in cars and trains, trying out chords on a piano backstage or on a guitar in the hotel room.
The supporting cast includes Joan Baez, Dylan's main squeeze at the time, with an appearance by a struggling Donovan, a Scottish folk singer. Baez, with her long dark hair and million-dollar smile, looking a bit like Cher, but sounding more like Joan Collins. Her pure voice has a healing quality. We catch snippets of "Turn Again" and it is like hearing doves sing a lullaby. "Love is Just a Four-Letter Word" -- maybe it is, but Joan's voice erases all past pains from lost loves.
I confess I have a hard time taking Dylan seriously when he tells the Time reporter "I'm just as good a singer as Caruso." Ahem, cough. Having heard his nasal voice on many recordings, and also having heard Baez's hilarious impression of his singing in a live concert a decade ago, it is hard to believe that HE believes it. But he does.
Along the way, Dylan's manager tries to negotiate an exclusive with either the BBC or Granada broadcasting. One cannot believe how they have to pull teeth just to wrangle $2000 for an appearance. But then again, concert tickets were maybe a pound. I recall seeing a souvenir Beatles' Chicago concert ticket stub that was I believe $3.50, face value.
I don't have to read Time or Newsweek to know that "Bob Dylan -- Don't Look Back" is a keeper. Or to know that a Bob Dylan who appeared on the scene now, would probably never even get airtime. But in that window of opportunity, those who addressed the burning issues of the day, even tiny, skinny kids with big noses and nothing but an acoustic guitar, a harmonica and a spotlight, could command loyal audiences and earn legendary stature in the rock-n-roll hall of fame.
"Bob Dylan -- Don't Look Back", 152 minutes, 1965 tour, 2006 documentary reissue from New Video Group. There was also a companion tour book published 1968.
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