D.A. Pennebaker, who has died aged 94, was a major documentary filmmaker who spent much of his fifty-year career interrogating notions of image, power and celebrity.
His best known work remains Don’t Look Back (1967), a groundbreaking, access-all-areas rockumentary following Bob Dylan on his British tour of 1965. Pennebaker, slyly counterpointing the public Dylan with the private Dylan, kept catching the newly sainted folk hero with his halo off-centre: one moment he was giving tetchy press interviews, the next he could be seen breaking up with Joan Baez.
After a decade or more of record-company hype and mythmaking, here was an exciting new way of looking at rock’s superstars. The film’s opening sequence – showing Dylan littering an alleyway behind the Savoy to the strains of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” – would subsequently be claimed by music television as in effect the first pop promo, yet what followed more often suggested the tiny, mumbling, sometimes petty man behind the global icon.
The film proved a critical and commercial success, and Pennebaker – stout, sandy-haired, already approaching middle-age – found himself an unlikely cohort to rockers facing transitional moments. He followed Don’t Look Back with Monterey Pop (1968), a snapshot of the US musical scene immediately prior to Woodstock, and captured Jimi Hendrix setting his guitar ablaze; then repaired to Hammersmith to shoot Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1973), the enduring record of David Bowie’s final gig in full Starman blusher.
These films brought fans closer to their heroes than ever before. Pennebaker had been part of the Direct Cinema movement: a major documentary rethink that rejected the old guard’s multitudinous crews and leading voiceovers in favour of fly-on-the-wall coverage enabled by new, lightweight recording equipment.
In a break from documentary tradition, Pennebaker typically avoided looking through his camera’s viewfinder, preferring to maintain eye contact with subjects – a technique that accounts for the sometimes rough-hewn nature of his images, but also their unusual candour, their ability to capture moments beyond the reach of stage-managed portraits.
“If you’re setting up lights and tripods and you’ve got three assistants running around, people will want to get you out as fast as they can," Pennebaker told Time in 2007. “But if you go the opposite way, if you make the camera the least important thing in the room, then it’s different.”
The unobtrusive approach worked wonders in The War Room (1993), where Pennebaker and wife Chris Hegedus eased themselves behind the scenes of Bill Clinton’s Presidential bid. Earlier political docs – notably the landmark Primary (1960), for which Pennebaker had shot footage – had focused on the candidates. The War Room was the first to focus on those spin doctors pulling the campaign strings and levers, contrasting the personalities of garrulous oddball James Carville and the super-slick George Stephanopoulos. Oscar-nominated, it again illustrated how quiet, sustained observation might yield surprising truths.
Donn Alan Pennebaker was born in Evanston, Illinois on July 15, 1925 to Lucille Levick (née Deemer) and the commercial photographer John-Paul Pennebaker. He served in the Navy during World War II, then studied engineering at Yale, first entering pioneer territory when the company he founded upon graduation, Electronics Engineering, initiated the first computerised airline reservation system.
Selling the company allowed Pennebaker to fund the short Daybreak Express (1953), a visually dynamic record of the sun rising over a soon-to-be-demolished stretch of New York’s elevated subway system, set to the titular Duke Ellington track; ever-enterprising, he secured the music rights by showing up on Ellington’s doorstep.
Pennebaker’s early output often detailed the hard work that went into putting on a show. Jane (1962) documented a young Jane Fonda’s disastrous stint on Broadway; in Original Cast Album: Company (1970), he caught Elaine Stritch endlessly rerecording her vocals for “Ladies Who Lunch”, while Stephen Sondheim looks on despairingly.
Scarcely less fraught was a collaboration Pennebaker attempted with Jean-Luc Godard, whose La Chinoise (1967) he had helped distribute. A project that began life as 1 A.M. (One American Movie), pitched as Godard’s thoughts on America at the time of Vietnam, was abandoned after the Frenchman lost interest; Pennebaker reedited the (very striking) rushes into 1 P.M. (One Parallel Movie) (1972).
Conflict similarly broke out in Town Bloody Hall (1979), a jolting time capsule that found Norman Mailer and Germaine Greer squaring up at a 1971 forum on “the feminist question”. Having been chased around this altogether turbulent event by the venue’s irate manager, Pennebaker was convinced the footage was unusable; he was only talked into persevering with it by Hegedus, then his editor.
The pair married in 1982, and collaborated on several late-career successes: The War Room was preceded by the much-admired Depeche Mode: 101 (1989) and followed by Down from the Mountain (2000), a concert-movie companion to the Coens’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000). Pennebaker branched out into food with Kings of Pastry (2009), and then live streaming, directing The National’s 2010 Brooklyn gig for YouTube. His final work was Unlocking the Cage (2016), on the Nonhuman Rights Project’s efforts to erode the legal distinctions between humans and animals.
A mentor to many – he produced Jehane Noujaim’s Startup.com (2001), and taught documentary at his alma mater – Pennebaker received an honorary Oscar in 2013. “It’s like a line Dylan would say, ‘What don’t you know that you want to know?’,” he told Sight & Sound in 2016. “[Making] a film is a marvellous process of continually asking questions.”
He is survived by Hegedus, their daughter Jane and son Kit; by daughters Stacey and Linley and son Frazer from his first marriage, to Sylvia Bell; and by a son Jojo and daughters Chelsea and Zoe from his second marriage, to Kate Taylor.
D.A. Pennebaker, born July 15, 1925, died August 1, 2019.