R.I.P. documentary filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker, one of the pioneers of cinéma vérité filmmaking

By on August 3, 2019

We here at Night Flight HQ were very saddened to hear today of the recent passing of celebrated director and cinematographer D.A. Pennebaker, widely regarded as one of the pioneers of cinéma vérité, a style that revolutionized the documentary genre by using uninterrupted observation, creating a fly-on-the-wall sense of immediacy.

Pennebaker — whose films like the Bob Dylan doc Don’t Look Back (1967), the concert film Monterey Pop and the David Bowie concert film Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (1973) are today considered classics of the rock doc genre — died this past Thursday night of natural causes. He was 94 years old.

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“D.A. Pennebaker invented the modern genre of direct documentary filmmaking,” says Night Flight’s Pat Prescott in her introduction to his segment on the eight episode of our IFC channel show, which aired back in 2018.

Donn Alan Pennebaker (his friends called him “Penny”) was born on July 15, 1925, in the Chicago suburb of Evanston, Illinois.

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Pennebaker was educated at both M.I.T. (1944-45) and Yale, where he studied mechanical engineering, graduating in 1947. He originally worked in electronics and engineering, founding Electronics Engineering, who produced the first computerized airline reservation system.

During World War II, Pennebaker was an engineer in the Naval Air Corps, where he developed an interest in filmmaking.

Daybreak Express (1953) — a kinetically-edited 16mm Kodachrome ride he’d taken on New York City’s “Third Avenue “El” elevated railway — was his very first short film, which you can see excerpted above (along with an excerpt from Night Flight’s interview with D.A. Pennebaker from the 1980s).

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Daybreak Express — accompanied by a Duke Ellington track of the same name — begins at sunrise as we follow a group of commuters boarding the overground El.

Soon we’re careening around New York City on a rattling railway. Skylines swing in and out of focus, silhouetted against the orange sky, and skyscrapers distort and bend above our heads.

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“I’d never really looked at 16mm film,” says Pennebaker in our Night Flight interview.

“I didn’t even know you could make your own films, I thought films came from Hollywood, you bought ‘em by the yard or something, and so I was really shocked to see that with one camera and pushing your finger, you could make something magic on the wall.”

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Read more about our eighth IFC episode here.

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By the late Fifties, Pennebaker was helping to develop what was called “Direct Cinema,” similar to cinéma vérité, for Drew Associates, the company he founded with Richard Leacock and former Life magazine editor and correspondent Robert Drew. Drew Associates produced documentaries for ABC News (“Close-up”) and Time-Life Broadcast (the syndicated series “Living Camera”).

Their first major feature was 1960’s Primary, which documented the campaigns of candidates John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey in the 1960 Wisconsin Democratic Primary. The film was selected for inclusion in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry.

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In 1963, Leacock and Pennebaker left Drew Associates and formed their own company, Leacock-Pennebaker Inc., producing several short films over the next few years, and it was the result of one of those films being seen by Bob Dylan’s manager that led to him being hired to film Don’t Look Back, which chronicled the musical icon’s 1966 U.K. tour.

That film famously opens with the landmark video for “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” in which Dylan can be seen flipping over cue cards with his lyrics on them, while poet Allen Ginsburg chats with him, standing off to the side. This sequence is at least partly responsible for the creation of what soon became “music videos.”

Buy D.A. Pennebaker’s Criterion Collection DVD of Don’t Look Back, which features Daybreak Express in the bonus material.

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Pennebaker also produced Monterey Pop (1968), a documentary look at the 1967 Monterey International Pop Festival, where Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix gave stand-out performances, although the film wasn’t easy to distribute because the concept of going to a theater to see a concert film was still relatively new at the time.

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Among his many other notable film projects was a fascinating 1970 film documenting the incredible eighteen-hour recording session for Stephen Sondheim’s fabled Broadway musical Company: Original Cast Album (it was recently parodied on the IFC show “Documentary Now”), and his film The War Room, an Oscar nominee for best documentary which examined Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign against incumbent George H.W. Bush.

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Throughout the 1970s, Pennebaker collaborated with people like writer Norman Mailer and French filmmaker and critic Jean-Luc Godard, and he filmed David Bowie’s last performance as Ziggy Stardust for Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars: The Movie.

By the mid-1970s, Pennebaker and his wife third wife Chris Hegedus — whom he married in 1982 — began co-directing films together.

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They ultimately formed Pennebaker-Hegedus Films, with Pennebaker’s eldest son, Frazer, as their producer. In the ’80s and ’90s, Pennebaker has made a number of concert films, including Depeche Mode 101 (1989), capturing the band’s 101st (and billed as their final) concert, which was held at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.

Pennebaker also taught documentary film workshops at Yale, and he was a member of the media panel for the National Endowment of the Arts (1971-76), which helped a lot of filmmakers who were no doubt inspired by his work.

He won many awards during his long career, including being the very first documentary filmmaker to receive a lifetime achievement Oscar.

D.A. Pennebaker is survived by wife and eight children.

R.I.P. D.A. Pennebaker.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.