D.A. Pennebaker, Who Redefined Film Documentaries, Dies at 94

D.A. Pennebaker made truth musical and brought reality to music.

D.A. Pennebaker Bob Dylan

Legendary documentary filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker died of natural causes at his home at Sag Harbor, Long Island, on August 1, according to Variety. The director and cinematographer of the 1967 Bob Dylan documentary Don’t Look Back, as well as the films Monterey Pop (1968) and The War Room (1993) was 94. He is survived by his wife, filmmaker Chris Hegedus, who was his most consistent artistic collaborator. He was working on his memoir.

Pennebaker’s influence on the art of the documentary is immeasurable, but evidentiary. Paradise Lost, Making a Murderer, Fahrenheit 911 and Madonna’s concert film Truth or Dare all share the D.A. DNA.

Donn Alan Pennebaker was born in Evanston, Illinois, on July 15, 1925. He was an engineer in the Naval Air Corps during World War II. Before he turned his attention to the camera, Pennebaker attended MIT and graduated from Yale with a mechanical engineering degree. Pennebaker’s early career-company Electronics Engineering produced the first computerized airline reservation system. Pennebaker would later use this skill to develop the first fully portable 16mm synchronized camera/sound recording system along with Robert Lealock. The handheld equipment helped create the cinema verite movement.

Pennebaker and Lealock had been working together since 1959, in a team that also included Albert Maysles, Terry Filgate and Robert Drew who made telefilms for the Time-Life series Living Camera. The group’s work on ABC’s 1961 Orange Bowl telefilm Mooney vs. Fowle won the top award at the 1962 London Film Festival. The group’s first major film was Primary, a documentary on the 1960 Wisconsin Democratic Primary race between candidates John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey. The film was shot from dawn to midnight over the course of five days. Primary was selected for inclusion in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 1990.

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In 1964, Pennebaker and Lealock formed Leacock Pennebaker Inc. and released the short film about jazz vocalist David Lambert called Lambert & Co. Bob Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman tapped Pennebaker to film the folk songwriter’s 1966 tour of England. The film’s opening sequence, with shows Dylan flipping cue cards to his song “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” continue to influence music videos. That’s poet Allen Ginsburg sweeping up the streets after the song ends. Distributors found the film “too ratty for the theater,” Pennebaker told Time. Rolling Stone ranks Don’t Look Back as the number 1 music documentary ever made.

Pennebaker’s Monterey Pop comes in at number 7. The documentary caught the 1967 Monterey International Pop Festival and made stars of Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, The Who, and Sly and the Family Stone, and brought Otis Redding to white audiences. When the film was first released, no theater would take it, so Pennebaker installed it at “a porn house on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. It ran for a year,” Pennebaker told Time.

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Pennebaker’s first film was Daybreak Express (1953), a five-minute short which subverted how people saw the old el trains of New York City. It was set to the music of Duke Ellington. His Sweet Toronto caught the September 13, 1969, Toronto Rock and Roll Revival festival at the University of Toronto. The documentary captured the entire closing set by John Lennon‘s Plastic Ono Band, which included Yoko Ono, Klaus Voorman, Alan White, and Eric Clapton. It also featured performances by Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, and Bo Diddley.

Pennebaker directed the 1973 David Bowie concert film Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars. Shot at London’s Hammersmith Odeon on July 3, 1973, the night Bowie put his Ziggy Stardust persona to bed. He also made the 1989 Depeche Mode road movie 101. His 2000 documentary Down From the Mountain focused on the musicians who performed the songs in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the crime comedy film by the Coen Brothers. 

Pennebaker made most of his films in the past several decades with his wife Chris Hegedus. Their documentary The War Room was a behind-the-scenes look at Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign against incumbent George H.W. Bush. The filmmakers didn’t have access to the nominee, so they focused on the campaign’s political strategies. It made stars of Clinton’s campaign manager James Carville, and communications director George Stephanopoulos. The War Room was nominated for the best documentary Oscar in 1994. Pennebaker and Hegedus’ documentary Elaine Stritch at Liberty was nominated for an outstanding directing for a variety, music or comedy program Emmy in 2004. In 2012, Pennebaker was the first documentary filmmaker to win the Lifetime Achievement Oscar from the Motion Picture Academy.

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Pennebaker and Hegedus directed Moon Over Broadway (1997), Startup.com (2001), the BBC-HBO documentary Unlocking the Cage, which focuses on animal rights attorney Steven Wise, as well as Al Franken: God Spoke (2006), Kings of Pastry (2009).

Pennebaker was married three times, to Sylvia Bell from 1950 to 1968, to Kate Taylor from 1972 to 1980. He married Hegedus in 1982. He is survived by her and eight children.

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Culture Editor Tony Sokol cut his teeth on the wire services and also wrote and produced New York City’s Vampyr Theatre and the rock opera AssassiNation: We Killed JFKRead more of his work here or find him on Twitter @tsokol.