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D.A. Pennebaker, Master Director of Documentaries, Dies at 94

D.A. Pennebaker, a director and cinematographer known for his documentaries, including the classic “Dont Look Back” (1967), “Monterey Pop” (1968) and “The War Room” (1993) and “Elaine Stritch at Liberty” (2002), died Thursday night of natural causes, Variety has confirmed. He was 94.

Pennebaker’s many other films included the 1973 David Bowie concert film “Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars,” 1989 Depeche Mode road movie “101” and “Down From the Mountain” (2000), about the musicians who performed the songs in the Coen Brothers’ film “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”

Pennebaker won an honorary Oscar in 2013.

In a 1997 article the U.K.’s the Independent described Pennebaker as arguably the preeminent chronicler of ’60s counterculture.

Pennebaker did not reserve his camera exclusively for the musical arena, however.

He and his wife, Chris Hegedus, with whom he made most of his films in the past several decades, were Oscar nominated in 1994 for best documentary for “The War Room,” a witty, behind-the-scenes look at Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign.

They shared a 2004 Emmy nomination for outstanding directing for a variety, music or comedy program for documentary “Elaine Stritch at Liberty.”

Most recently Pennebaker and Hegedus directed the BBC-HBO documentary “Unlocking the Cage,” following animal rights attorney Steven Wise on his quest to break through the legal wall that separates animals from humans. Other recent films include “Al Franken: God Spoke” (2006) and “Kings of Pastry” (2009).

In 1977 the pair turned out the five-hour “Energy War,” about then-President Jimmy Carter’s gas deregulation bill.

Bob Dylan documentary “Dont Look Back,” which chronicled the musical icon’s 1966 U.K. tour, famously opens with the landmark video for “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” in which a young, scruffy Dylan flips cue cards along to his lyrics while poet Allen Ginsburg chats on the side; this sequence significantly influenced the later development of music videos. Pennebaker would have a place in film history if he’d made only this rock documentary classic, which was selected for inclusion in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 1998 and ranked No. 6 on Time Out magazine’s list of the 50 best documentaries of all time.

“Monterey Pop” offered extraordinary live footage of Janis Joplin, Ravi Shankar and Jimi Hendrix, with the director affectionately capturing the Summer of Love.

Pennebaker was not merely a maker of fine documentaries but part of a team that helped redefine what a documentary was. In the early 1960s he and filmmakers including Richard Leacock and Albert Maysles created the handheld, easily portable camera equipment that allowed for the formation of the cinema verite movement. The revolution was, in the words of a a 1997 article in the U.K.’s the Independent, “as much an ideological as a technological one; the verite films discarded preachy narration in favour of watchful fly- on-the-wall neutrality and championed non-judgmental observation as the purest form of documentation.”

Donn Alan Pennebaker (his friends would call him Penny) was born in Evanston, Illinois; his father was a commercial photographer.

Pennebaker attended MIT in 1944-45 and studied mechanical engineering at Yale, graduating in 1947, and initially worked as an engineer, founding the company Electronics Engineering, which produced the first computerized airline reservation system. During World War II Pennebaker had served as an engineer in the Naval Air Corps.

Ultimately cultivating an interest in filmmaking, Pennebaker first directed the 1953 documentary short “Daybreak Express,” which followed a train around New York City and utilized the Duke Ellington song of the same name.

“I feel in debt to Ellington and instinctively to all musicians,” Pennebaker would later tell Stop Smiling magazine. “They taught me my art. The very nature of film is musical, because it uses time as a basis for its energy. It needs to go from here to there, whereas pictures and paintings are just there. With movies, you’re putting something together that’s not going to be totally comprehensible until the end. It’s the concept of the novel and the sonnet — you need to get to the end, to see if you like it and decide what it’s about. With stills, there’s always the same instant, frozen and beguiling, but lifeless. A single note. With film, the moment doesn’t hold — it rushes by, and you must deal with it like you do music and real life.”

In 1959, Pennebaker, Richard Leacock and former Life magazine editor and correspondent Robert Drew founded Drew Associates. In what represented a key time in the development of Direct Cinema (a documentary genre similar to cinema verite), the collective produced documentaries for clients including ABC News (“Close-up”) and Time-Life Broadcast (syndicated series “Living Camera”). Their first major film was 1960’s “Primary,” which documented the campaigns of candidates John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey in the 1960 Wisconsin Democratic Primary. It was, according to the Drew Associates website, “the first film in which the sync sound camera moved freely with characters throughout a breaking story” — a substantial technical achievement that paved the way for contemporary documentary filmmaking. Drew, Leacock and Pennebaker, as well as photographers Albert Maysles, Terrence McCartney Filgate and Bill Knoll, all shot the campaigning from dawn to midnight over the course of five days. In 1990 “Primary” was selected for inclusion in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry.

Drew Associates produced nine more documentaries for “Living Camera,” including “Crisis,” which followed President Kennedy and Attorney General Robert Kennedy in their conflict with Alabama Governor George Wallace over school desegregation.

Pennebaker and Leacock left the organization in 1963 to form their own production firm, Leacock-Pennebaker Inc. Pennebaker directed several short films over the next two years. One was a rare recording of jazz vocalist Dave Lambert, who died in a car accident shortly thereafter, leaving Pennebaker’s film as one of the few visual recordings of the singer. The documentary drew attention in Europe, and a few weeks later, Bob Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman, approached Pennebaker about filming Dylan while he was touring in England. The subsequent film, “Dont Look Back,” paved the way for the rest of Pennebaker’s career.

Jean-Luc Godard took an interest in Pennebaker’s work and sought to team up with him on a project, but it never quite came to fruition.

Pennebaker was a member of the media panel for the National Endowment for the Arts from 1971–76 and later taught a workshop on documentary films at Yale.

He won a career achievement award from the International Documentary Association in 2005.

Pennebaker was thrice married, the first time to Sylvia Bell from 1950-68, the second time to Kate Taylor, who did sound work on some of Pennebaker’s documentaries in the 1970s, from 1972-80. Both marriages ended in divorce.

He is survived by third wife Chris Hegedus, whom he married in 1982, and eight children: Stacy Pennebaker, Frazer Pennebaker (a producer of many Pennebaker documentaries) and Linley Pennebaker, from Bell; TV director Jojo Pennebaker, Chelsea Pennebaker and Zoe Pennebaker, from Taylor; and camera operator Kit Pennebaker and Jane Pennebaker, from Hegedus.

 

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