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  • Writer's pictureJim Bessman

D.A. Pennebaker--An Appreciation

D.A. Pennebaker discusses his historic Bob Dylan documentary "Don't Look Back"

D.A. Pennebaker, the documentary filmmaker who in the 1960s helped pioneer a movement known as cinema verité or direct cinema, died last Thursday at 94. His use of lightweight equipment including hand-held cameras and allowing for live sound recording was notably employed in two of the most historically significant rock documentaries: Don’t Look Back (1967), which followed Bob Dylan on his 1965 tour of England, and Monterey Pop (1968), which immortalized the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival and contained truly legendary performances by the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, The Who, Otis Redding and Ravi Shankar.

Janis Joplin's monumental performance from "Monterey Pop"

“He loved the musicians he filmed, from David Bowie to Depeche Mode to Sam Moore,” said Roger Friedman, who produced the Only the Strong Survive 2002 documentary, directed by Pennebaker and his wife Chris Hegedus (about soul music label Stax Records), in a piece written for his Showbiz 411 website.

“He lived a life of invention, adventure, and genius,” Friedman added, also noting Pennebaker’s non-music documentaries, most notably The War Room (1993), about Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign, for which he and Hegedus were nominated for an Academy Award.

“In 2014, Rolling Stone named Don’t Look Back the No. 1 music documentary ever made, and Monterey Pop No. 7,” wrote Friedman, also singling out the former film’s famous opening segment of Dylan casting down lyric cards for the soundtrack song “Subterranean Homesick Blues” (with Allen Ginsberg in the background) that is perhaps “the most copied, influential music clip of all time.”

"Subterranean Homesick Blues," from "Don't Look Back"

“Penny, as he was affectionately known, was as much a fan of artistic expression as he was an artist in his own right,” says Joseph Baldassare, curator and producer of the Pennebaker photo exhibitions Don’t Look Back and Monterey Pop. “That is clearly understood when you discover the vast subject matter he covered in his films over the decades.”

Pennebaker, said Baldassare, “was interested in everything interesting, and he knew everybody—and everybody knew him: Every time I mentioned someone Penny would say, ‘We made a film together!’”

Friedman characterized Pennebaker as “the most gentle, good-natured artist, genius, I’ve ever known or could imagine.” Via email, Ethan Coen, whose Grammy-winning soundtrack-driven O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) was followed by the complementary Hegedus-Pennebaker-Nick Doob documentary/concert film Down from the Mountain (2000), said: “I never saw Penny’s ego. If he had any, it wasn’t in his work. That’s why his movies are great.”

Filmmaker Ed McKeon is one of many who came to Pennebaker through Don’t Look Back, and echoes Coen.

“I don’t know any filmmaker my age who wasn’t inspired and affected by D.A. Pennebaker,” says McKeon, who also serves as folk music director at University of Hartford station WWUH-FM.

“While I came to Don’t Look Back a Dylan fan, I left it a Pennebaker devotee,” notes McKeon. “A good filmmaker gets the essential interview, the necessary B-roll [supplemental footage]. A great filmmaker is rolling at the unguarded moment, the revealing instance. Pennebaker was the kind of filmmaker who showed us that a camera, DP [director of photography] and crew could disappear enough to make a leery subject forget they were there. Those are important, unforgettable lessons.”

“He was Zelig,” concluded Baldassare, “blessed to be in the right place at the right time consistently for decades. And aren't we lucky that he filmed it all as he went so we could be there, too? He had a big life, and enjoyed every minute of it.”



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