September 8, 2019 – I saw this DVD at a thrift store and bought it as an impulse purchase, and it turned out to be a really fine musical documentary, even though it consists mainly of unused portions of an earlier musical documentary.
This 2007 DVD consists of film shot by the late Murray Lerner and his team at the 1963, 1964 and 1965 Newport Folk music Festivals. This is footage that was not used in Lerner's 1967 film, “Festival.” So this newer film is basically outtakes from Newport re-edited by Lerner into a new film. Unlike most music documentaries, there is no narration or interviews with musicians.
In an interview on the disc, Lerner explains that he likes to let the music speak for itself, and it certainly does. The effect of this remarkable film is to clearly show the evolution of Bob Dylan from a young mainstream folk singer into a musical superstar as he transcends the folk genre to become a lyrical poet backed by a rock band.
The transformation from Dylan's performances in 1963 to 1965 is remarkable, as is the audience's reaction to him. At the beginning, he is just one performer among many, sitting on a low stage amongst other musicians, singing a song about the land of his youth in Minnesota, “North Country Blues.” Over the next two years, he comes to dominate the proceedings, to the point where audiences just can't get enough of him. They demand encores from Dylan in preference to the next scheduled act, no matter who that is.
Dylan's appearance changes over the years and his confidence grows, along with his ease of performing in front of an audience. Dylan is a powerful performer with a strong voice (this is prior to his motorcycle accident in 1966 which is said to have negatively affected his voice).
Some people in the audience seemed concerned that Dylan had gotten too big for the folk scene. In the film, some critical people in the audience say that Dylan has become an establishment figure, the object of worship by some. This feeling is clearly demonstrated when Dylan is booed as he performs an “electric set” on the evening of July 25 with members of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, including Hall of Fame electric guitarist Mike Bloomfield and another famous musician and producer, Al Kooper.
The boos turn to cheers after Dylan's electric set when he returns to the stage alone to perform two powerful acoustic numbers. Dylan realizes he did not bring a harmonica on stage with him for his impromptu acoustic songs, so he asks the audience for a harmonica in the key of E, “Just throw them up here.” Several E harmonicas immediately clatter at his feet (not your usual concert audience). He picks one up, then wows the audience with “Mr. Tambourine Man,” followed by “It's All Over Now Baby Blue.” After that, he triumphantly exits the stage in a mic-drop moment.
The documentary also includes some performances with Joan Baez, including one of her funny imitations of Dylan's voice, and some of Joan's own thoughts on being a celebrity. There is also a snippet of the late Johnny Cash singing Dylan's “Don't Think Twice, It's All Right.” Peter, Paul and Mary, and the Freedom Singers join Dylan and others on stage for a rendition of Dylan's “Blowin' in the Wind.”
The audio on the DVD is quite good, despite the weather at this outdoor venue, including a lot of wind. The best audio is a high-quality LPCM stereo soundtrack, along with an AC3 5.1 soundtrack that appears to be more compressed. The camera work is good, ahead of its time really, in the use of extreme closeups of the performers. The video appears to be a transfer from 16mm film, featuring a pre-widescreen 1.37:1 aspect ratio (the old “Academy Standard” format). There is some graininess in the night scenes due to challenging light conditions and some other minor film artifacts.
This “Columbia Performance Series” DVD also includes an informative booklet that provides some background and analysis of the movie. I was very pleased with my purchase of this DVD (a blu-ray version of this movie is also available). Of course I got it cheap, but I would pay full price for it now that I know how good it is. This film rates an A.
Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in digital formats, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.