Pop quiz: What was the most important and influential live set in the history of pop music? Your choices are Elvis on Ed Sullivan, The Beatles at Shea Stadium, Jimi Hendrix at Monterey, The Rolling Stones at Altamont, or Bob Dylan at Newport in 1965. If you’re apt to pick Dylan at Newport, you might consider “The Other Side of The Mirror” a chance to be face to face with the most important 15 minutes in pop music history.
An abbreviated version of Dylan’s 1965 Newport set was originally released on “Festival” in 1967, made by the same filmmaker as “The Other Side of The Mirror.” “Festival” saw limited distribution in repertory theaters but was never been released for home video due to legal issues. It was even nominated for an Oscar in ’68.
Fortunately, filmmaker Murray Lerner archived his footage from the 1963, ’64, and ’65 Newport festivals. Ten years after “Festival” was released, Lerner began thinking about a movie focused on Dylan’s Newport performances. He started working on an edit of “The Other Side of The Mirror” as a personal project, and in ’75 showed his work to Dylan associate Howard Alt. After a few minutes Alt said, “I’ve got to show this to Bob tonight.” Lerner then contacted Dylan’s attorney, but the project was stonewalled. Years later, Lerner connected with executive producer Jeff Rosen, who had the stamina and connections to finally have the movie released on DVD.
The movie is remarkably straightforward. No voiceovers or lengthy introductions disrupt the cinematic narrative flow of the film. Lerner says, “The strength of the movie is its simplicity. The filmgoer takes a journey with Bob Dylan through his performances. It doesn’t need any orientation; just watch it.” However the film isn’t merely Dylan’s performances. We also see Dylan offstage, as well as the audience’s reactions to his music. Lerner’s film is such an excellent document that the viewer is immersed in the world of ’60s folk music, and sees the effect Dylan had on it.
Unlike many music DVDs, “The Other Side of The Mirror” can be watched in its entirety without boredom setting in. It was conceived as a complete film, not separate performances strung together. Yes, the menu lets you select specific songs, but the film has a natural flow that all but forces you to watch it all.
One of the great questions in pop music history is, “Why did fans boo Dylan’s electric performance at the 1965 Newport Folk festival?” There are two prevalent schools of thought. One is that the audience didn’t like Dylan’s turn to electric music. The other is that fans were disappointed in the quality of the amplified sound. While here you can clearly hear the boos, the footage doesn’t explain why they happened. Given that the single “Like a Rolling Stone” had been high on the pop charts for several months before the Newport festival, Dylan fans must have heard it on the radio and expected Dylan to perform it. To think they would have come to Newport with the sole purpose of expressing their displeasure over his “sell-out” is hard to accept; it’s more likely that the sound reinforcement was inadequate to cope with the volume levels of Dylan and the Paul Butterfield Band’s amplified music, and the audience’s boos were a reaction.
Although the sound at the event may have been bad, the sonics on this DVD are excellent. Lerner’s crew likely had its own sound engineer and/or they were savvy enough to take a feed directly from the mixing board. The 1963 and ’64 selections were recorded only in mono, but by ’65 everything was recorded in stereo. The audio menu lets you select stereo or 5.1 mix, but 5.1 doesn’t buy much additional fidelity.
Picture quality is decent given the age of the original footage, but again, don’t expect miracles. The transfer is decent and you can clearly see the film grain, but it is not super sharp. On a big screen, you’ll be disappointed by the so-so detail. On a positive note, the synchronization between the picture and the sound is spot-on.
Unlike most concert DVDs, “The Other Side of The Mirror” deserves a prominent place in any DVD library. It’s not only a great document, but a beautifully crafted film, full of subtle details that make it worthy of many viewings.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Jan ’08 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.