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Although the film was not copyrighted at the time of its release, Rangoon Corporation registered it for copyright on April 12, 1979 under the number PA-50-903. As noted in contemporary sources, Eat the Document, which is based on footage of musician Bob Dylan's 1966 tour of Europe, was first commissioned by the ABC television network. Months after its completion, however, Dylan was involved in a motorcycle accident during which his neck was broken. After a year of recovery, he and filmmaker Howard Alk re-edited the footage, using mainly, according to the New York Times review, "outs of the prior cut." The resulting nonlinear, experimental version was rejected by ABC and subsequently was screened independently by Alk and co-director D. A. Pennebaker. As noted in the New York Times review, in the program notes for the New York screening Alk described the new version as, variously, "an anti-documentary," "verit-documentary" and "a comedy."
The footage for this film was captured by Pennebaker and Alk, noted documentary filmmakers, throughout the 1966 tour. Eat the Document succeeded the filmmaking duo's much-lauded 1967 documentary Don't Look Back, which followed Dylan on his 1965 European tour. As shown in Eat the Document, the 1966 tour generated intense controversy for his use of the electric guitar, following his groundbreaking and fury-inducing performance at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. His transformation from gentle folk icon to stentorian rock star horrified many of his loyal fans, who, as shown in the film, labeled him a "traitor."
Dylan was accompanied on the tour by his backing band, The Hawks. For the 1966 shows, drummer Mickey Jones substituted for regular Hawks drummer Levon Helm. Members of the Hawks, including Helm, went on to form the renowned rock group The Band. Although an exact list of songs performed in the film has not been confirmed, modern sources include the following: "Tell Me, Momma," "I Don't Believe You (She Acts like We Never Met)," "Ballad of a Thin Man" and "One Too Many Mornings."
Although some modern sources state that Hawks guitarist Robbie Robertson helped edit the film, his role has not been confirmed. Modern sources describe a scene in which Dylan, under the influence of drugs, shares a taxi ride with John Lennon, but it is unlikely that that scene was included in the original release.
After a brief run in New York City beginning on November 30, 1972, the film was not screened publicly until 1998. Some scenes from Eat the Document were included in the 2005 television documentary on Dylan entitled No Direction Home, directed by Martin Scorsese.