Filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker had no idea he was making history when he was asked to document Bob Dylan's 1965 tour of England.
"I probably had heard maybe one song, and I'd never seen him," Pennebaker says, looking back on his first meeting with Dylan. "He hadn't been around much to have acquired many fans when I first encountered him, but a little voice inside of me said, 'This is a good thing. Go!'"
That "little voice" turned out to be right. The three-week tour documented in Pennebaker's film, Don't Look Back, proved to be Dylan's last as a solo acoustic performer. The singer went on to become a legend, and so did the film, as Don't Look Back established conventions that can be seen in later films like Gimme Shelter, as well as in MTV videos.
Now, in conjunction with Dylan's 60th birthday on Thursday, the film is being re-released on DVD. The film is possibly the most intimate portrait of the notoriously shy Dylan ever presented. The performances of "The Times They Are A-Changin'" and other songs are stunning.
But the performances by the private Dylan, offstage, are even more captivating. He mercilessly harangues journalists for asking him to explain his lyrics. He all but ignores the advances and presence of his then-lover, Joan Baez. And he returns the admiration of rival — or as he's called in the film, "the other folk singer" — Donovan by trying to engage him in a game of musical one-upmanship. In front of Pennebaker's camera, Dylan seems blissfully unaware, or maybe all too aware, that he's being filmed.
"They're all people who trust you with sharing their lives, and they trust that you're serious," Pennebaker says of Dylan and his entourage and the confidence they placed in him as a documentary filmmaker. "It's not that you're going to do them in, or embarrass them; they know that will probably happen, but they know that you take what they do seriously and you take what you do seriously, and they feel that's a good tradeoff."
The rules that Pennebaker used in Don't Look Back are the same guidelines he used when filming other music documentaries like Monterey Pop and the 1992 Clinton presidential campaign saga The War Room.
"We're not going to narrate anything, we're not going to tell you what to think, we're just going to show you what we saw and that's about all we can do," Pennebaker says of the techniques that make his films so compelling.
The re-release of Don't Look Back lost nothing in its transfer to DVD, and the sound quality of the performances is so stellar that even Dylan himself was impressed.
"He came in [to the studio] one day and said, 'How do you get that great sound?'" Pennebaker says. "I said, 'That's mono,' and he said, 'I've got to tell those guys back in the studio to throw out their 24-tracks, then!'"
As for the rest of the film, Dylan is not as impressed with his own performance.
"He's always said, "It's a great film, I'm just sorry it's about me!" Pennebaker says.
Staying true to his tradition of chronicling things he finds culturally relevant, the 76-year-old Pennebaker's production company is also behind Startup.com, a documentary released earlier this month that chronicles a young Internet company.