Brow Beat

D.A. Pennebaker, Dead at 94, Transformed Documentary Filmmaking

The director behind Don’t Look Back, Monterey Pop, and The War Room was the Boomers’ great cinematic chronicler.

D.A. Pennebaker, sitting in a director's chair onstage, laughs during a Q&A.
D.A. Pennebaker speaking at an IFC Center event in February. Dave Kotinsky/Getty Images for IFC

D.A. Pennebaker, the hugely influential documentarian whose films chronicled everything from a Bob Dylan concert tour to Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign, died Thursday night at the age of 94, Variety reports.

Pennebaker, a native of Illinois, entered the workforce as an engineer, albeit an engineer who was a member of Yale’s class of 1947. After college, he founded a Bridgeport, Connecticut, firm called Electronics Engineering Laboratories; the company’s business ventures included one of the first computerized systems for recording airline reservations.

In the 1950s, he turned his attention to filmmaking, making Daybreak Express, a frenetic short film that pairs footage from the long-gone IRT Third Avenue line with Duke Ellington’s song of the same name. As Pennebaker describes on his website, the project was more of a lark than a career change:

I didn’t know much about film editing, or in fact about shooting, so I bought a couple of rolls of Kodachrome at the drugstore, and figured that since the record was about three minutes long, by shooting carefully I could fit the whole thing onto one roll of film. Of course that didn’t work since I couldn’t start and stop my hand-wound camera that easily so I ended up shooting both rolls and even a few more before I was through. It took about three days to film and then sat in a closet for several years until I figured out how to edit it and make a projection print.

Inexperienced or not, Pennebaker’s first film is fantastic, a golden-hued ode to New York City commuting when it was a little less nightmarish. But it was his second short, Baby, that had the biggest influence on his later style. Pennebaker had planned to stage an elaborate scenario using editing to suggest that zoo animals were observing his two-year-old daughter instead of vice-versa. But like many directors and nearly all parents, Pennebaker found his star more captivating than his script, and ended up making a very different film, capturing unrehearsed and unexpected moments as his daughter explored the Central Park Zoo:

It was a filmmaking philosophy Pennebaker would pursue for the rest of his career. In 1959, Robert Drew invited Pennebaker to join a filmmaking team he was forming at Time-Life, which split into its own firm, Drew Associates, in 1960. Pennebaker’s engineering skills came in handy during the production of the landmark documentary Primary: He oversaw the installation of new editing equipment that allowed 16mm film and sound to be edited simultaneously, and helped cinematographer Albert Maysles rig a camera with the wide lens that allowed him to capture the film’s famous shot of John F. Kennedy walking through a crowd of adoring fans.

Pennebaker and Richard Leacock left Drew Associates in 1963 to form their own production company. As part of a project, he accompanied jazz vocalist Dave Lambert recording a demo for RCA with a new vocal group. RCA didn’t sign Lambert’s group and the project was shelved, but when Lambert died a few months later, Pennebaker dug up the unused footage and cut it into something that could be shown at his wake. That film eventually made its way to Germany, where Bob Dylan’s manager saw it, which led him to ask Pennebaker if he’d film Dylan’s European concert tour. Pennebaker shot for three weeks in April 1965, then edited the footage into Bob Dylan: Don’t Look Back, one of the greatest and most influential music documentaries of all time. The opening titles, in which Dylan flips through a stack of cue cards with lyrics from “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” is justifiably famous:

Pennebaker’s success filming Dylan led to a long line of music documentaries: Over the years, he captured performances from John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band, David Bowie, Depeche Mode, Little Richard, and a May 2000 concert in Nashville from the musicians featured on the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou? But no film featured more legends per second than Monterey Pop, his 1968 documentary about the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, which features performances from the Mamas & the Papas, Simon & Garfunkel, Jefferson Airplane, The Animals, Otis Redding, and Ravi Shankar. Oh, and also Janis Joplin, the Who, and Jimi Hendrix:

Pennebaker’s interest in capturing performance, broadly defined, wasn’t limited to music or presidential primaries: over the years, he made documentaries about dance, theater, startups, dance, theater, startups, dance, theater, and Norman Mailer. 1970’s Company: Original Cast Album, recently parodied on Documentary Now, hits the music, theater, and startup trifecta: It’s the chronicle of an all-night recording session for a new Broadway musical. In 1982, he married his third wife, Chris Hegedus, with whom he collaborated on his films going forward. The couple co-directed The War Room, a documentary about the 1992 presidential election that was nominated for the Best Documentary Feature Academy Award:

Pennebaker and Hegedus lost the Oscar to I Am a Promise: The Children of Stanton Elementary School, but the Academy made up for it in 2012 by giving Pennebaker an honorary Oscar at the Governors Awards. Pennebaker began his acceptance speech on a light note, talking about how much he loved making films with his wife, but went on to make a melancholy admission: The man who, more than any other filmmaker, captured the Baby Boomers’ rise to cultural and then political power had never felt entirely accepted by his peers in Hollywood.

As a kind of a foreigner from New York, who all my life everything I learned about films was in watching the movies that you people out here made—that’s my education in film—and watching those films and thinking about this award has made me feel that finally, between here and New York, there’s finally some kind of a bridge. And that you guys all, somehow, now consider us fellow filmmakers. And that’s wonderful.

Pennebaker is survived by his wife and eight children.