D.A. Pennebaker, 1925-2019

In the clip above from 2014, Canadian journalist Ken Rockburn sits down with one of the most respected documentary filmmakers of our time, D.A. Pennebaker. The director looks much younger than his age and enthusiastically talks about his career, which obviously involves a lot of musicians. After all, Pennebaker is known as a chronicler of the 1960s counterculture. He passed away a few days ago at the age of 94.

Born Donn Alan Pennebaker in Evanston, Illinois, he served in the Navy during World War II and worked for some time as an engineer. His father was a photographer, so his interest in the cinema was perhaps not a surprise. Pennebaker’s first film was a short he made in 1953, a portrait of a New York City subway station where he used a Duke Ellington recording as soundtrack. He joined a collective in the late 1950s that produced documentaries for TV stations. Their work was part of what came to be known as Direct Cinema, a fresh concept at the time (sometimes labeled the North American version of Cinéma Vérité), where films were made with handheld cameras and live sound, making mobility and authenticity key aspects. The collective’s most famous film from this period was Primary (1960), capturing the Kennedy campaign at work before and during the Wisconsin primary; take a look above.

In 1963, Pennebaker formed a new company with one of his filmmaking partners. Two years later, he was persuaded to make a documentary about Bob Dylan, an artist Pennebaker was not very familiar with. The film, Dont Look Back (1967), became his most famous. An account of Dylan’s 1965 tour in Britain, the film is virtually a symbol of the decade’s culture. The opening sequence (as seen above), where Dylan drops cardboard cards while “Subterranean Homesick Blues” is being performed, is known as more or less the invention of music videos.

Pennebaker kept returning to music over the years. His Monterey Pop, a chronicle of a 1967 music festival, is another classic. He was not the director of Woodstock (1970), but you’d be forgiven for thinking so – Pennebaker has become so intimately connected to many of the artists performing at Woodstock. Several of them benefited greatly from being captured by his camera. This was true even 20 years later when he made 101, a film (and an album) that followed Depeche Mode’s highly successful 1988 U.S. tour after the release of their album “Music for the Masses”. Pennebaker became fascinated by the band and was reminded of how devoted fans had been to Dylan and David Bowie when he filmed them decades earlier. The clip above shows Depeche Mode performing “Everything Counts” in the film. 

The most notable movie Pennebaker made in the 1990s was The War Room (1993), where Governor Bill Clinton’s staff prepared for Democratic primaries and figured out how to help him beat back accusations of sexual misconduct. Things had changed since Primary.

Pennebaker’s wife, Chris Hegedus, received a co-directing credit and she’s certainly a talent of her own. They met in the 1970s when they started collaborating and ultimately fell in love, getting married in 1982. Partners in the style of Direct Cinema, they  frequently returned to both music and politics in their work. Being a fly on the wall was truly their style, not the Michael Moore tradition of making the director part of a crusade. Not that they were rivals; when Pennebaker received his honorary Oscar in 2012, Moore was the presenter.

Today, one of Hollywood’s most accomplished documentary directors, Alex Gibney, celebrated D.A. Pennebaker’s legacy on Twitter:

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