The opening credits to 65 Revisited label the film as "Outtakes from Don't Look Back." The label doesn't accurately describe D. A. Pennebaker's new film. In the DVD commentary, Pennebaker talks about having made Don't Look Back without the benefit of notes or of knowing what was going to happen. He just followed Dylan around, filmed what interested him, what seemed important at the time. He got a lot right, but he missed some things too. Now, 40 years later, he has a different sense of what was important about that 1965 tour, and these newly recognized interests are apparent in 65 Revisited, constructed from footage not used in the 1967 film. As one of the commentators remarks, this was a transitional period as Dylan was moving from his acoustic period to his electric phase. The acoustic Dylan is much in evidence. In fact, this film is a kind of tribute to the acoustic Dylan. While Don't Look Back focused on the peripatetic Dylan, his incendiary and explosive personality, his way of challenging reporters and fans and anyone who threatened or irritated him or just happened to be in the way at the wrong or right time, 65 Revisited focuses on Dylan's music. It features a number of excellent performances, many of them complete, both on stage and in hotel rooms.
Film quality is grainy and often marred by imperfections, but this is part of the authenticity of the film. Someone did a good job of restoring the film and of bringing out as much of it visually as possible. The sound quality is usually excellent. No real plot or narrative is in evidence. The film follows Dylan from one British city to another. We see him riding in cars, talking with friends and fans, rehearsing, and mainly we see him performing. There is not an edge to this film as there was in Don't Look Back. We don't see Dylan ridiculing posers and reporters. We don't see much of the famous Dylan attitude. We see instead a performer who relishes his moment of fame and who truly enjoys performing. There are numerous glimpses of a shy and insecure and vulnerable Dylan. We see him more as a human being than as a distant pop icon. His nervousness before he goes on stage in the Royal Albert Hall on May 8, 1965, is surprising and amusing.
Other surprising aspects of Dylan emerge in 65 Revisited. In one scene he chats with a group of British fans. He is shy and somewhat diffident but not at all indifferent. He's flattered by their attention, and there are moments when you feel as if you're watching a group of young people chatting casually with one another, not a famous singer talking to fans. In another scene, Dylan and Bob Neuwirth sit on a train leaving the station, watching girls run alongside the tracks waving frantically. Dylan and Neuwirth don't know what to make of this. They laugh and seem astounded.
Howard Grossman comes off in the new film as more gentle and congenial that he seemed to be in Don't Look Back—what we did see of him there. Here he is much in evidence, and though he is clearly the manager in charge of arrangements, he is also the friend and companion, and his admiration for Dylan as a person and artist rather than merely as a commodity is clear.
Dylan the singer, songwriter, and musician is the focus of 65 Revisited. The film begins and ends with Dylan playing the piano. An unidentified black man (possibly Tom Wilson, producer of Highway 61 Revisited) sits next to the piano, rocking in pleasure as he listens. Elsewhere Dylan plays the usual guitar and harmonica. There are excellent performances of "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright," "Love Minus Zero/No Limit," "To Ramona," The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll," "It's Alright Ma, I'm Only Bleeding," "She Belongs to Me," and others. Dylan's singing and harmonica musicianship are amazing. He has been criticized over the years for sloppiness and indifference in his public performances. Those purported flaws are not evident here. Musically, he is superb in this film.
This film helps explain the rage many British fans expressed when Dylan went electric. He sings as well as he ever sang in these "outtakes"—his singing is heartfelt, artful, and beautiful. He had to evolve, he couldn't stand still, and the electric Dylan has its own many merits—it's another impressive dimension of his career—but 65 Revisited reminds us that a rich and important period of his career was culminating and indeed coming to an end in these performances in England. The Newport Folk Festival, and the recording of Highway 61 Revisited, were only two months away.
It's interesting to compare Dylan's performances in this film with those recorded in Eat the Document, filmed a year later. Dylan in 65 Revisited is relaxed, clear in his singing, very musical. A year later his singing has changed remarkably—he is still excellent, perhaps even better, but the music and singing have changed, the influence of heavy drug and alcohol use is clearly apparent. If we want to accept the evidence that the Scorsese documentary and other sources cite to suggest that Dylan in 1965 and 1966 was verging on burn out and self-immolation, the difference between the Dylan of 65 Revisited and Eat the Document tends to support the argument. After the final scene in Eat the Document, you can see the motorcycle wreck looming.