D.A. Pennebaker, a champion of the cinéma-vérité approach to documentary, which emphasized intimate portraits of its subjects, died Thursday from natural causes, his son Frazer confirmed to Rolling Stone. He was 94.
Chronicling rock stars and political operatives, Pennebaker sought to strip away the artifice — both in nonfiction films and from the famous figures who populated his movies — to craft deceptively casual snapshots of people we thought we knew. Whether in Dont Look Back (about Bob Dylan’s 1965 tour of England) or The War Room (a look behind the scenes of Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign), his handheld camera made viewers feel as if they were along for the ride as history was taking place. Concert films such as Monterey Pop and Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars captured the passion and inventiveness of rock music’s cultural zenith, while 2001’s Startup.com (which he produced) examined the internet bubble of the late 20th century through the deteriorating friendship of two entrepreneurs. No matter the film, though, Pennebaker was open to the randomness of life to provide unpredictability and energy to his fly-on-the-wall portraits. As he said in 2017, “Half the things that happened to me, that I look back on and were really good, were all kind of I think of as luck. Chance.”
Donn Alan Pennebaker was born July 15, 1925, growing up in Chicago to a father, a successful photographer, who divorced his mother when he was still a boy. “I didn’t want to be what he was,” Pennebaker later admitted. “He had no time for a family.” After studying engineering at Yale, he worked as a carpenter for about a decade before deciding to focus on writing and painting. Eventually, he turned his attention to filmmaking, which led to his first short, 1953’s Daybreak Express, about an elevated New York subway line. Scored to Duke Ellington, the non-narrative Daybreak Express was an early indicator of Pennebaker’s ability to meld music with images, and soon he teamed up with fellow documentarian Robert Drew and others to form Drew Associates, a collective that advocated for a new kind of nonfiction cinema — unfussy, lacking polish or traditional talking-head interviews — that offered viewers direct, unvarnished access to the film’s subject.
Pennebaker put that theory into practice on Primary, a 1960 documentary about the Democratic primary in Wisconsin, in which he served as a cameraman. Even more importantly, it was while working on that film that he helped create a lighter, portable sound-recording camera — a crucial development in the history of nonfiction filmmaking. “It was the synch that really changed documentaries,” Pennebaker explained to Film Comment, later adding that, before Primary, “[E]verything had to be lip synched when we edited. We had to find the synch. Nothing was even cued. So that was a big problem.”
No longer encumbered, he was able to work much more quickly and freely, which he did brilliantly when he signed on to direct a film about Dylan as he toured Britain in 1965. The two men had a handshake deal but no formal plan regarding what Pennebaker would shoot. “Dylan was important — that was the first thing I was convinced of,” the filmmaker recalled. “I wanted to find out more about him, and I didn’t know any other way. Asking questions was no good; I wanted to watch Dylan in as intimate a way as possible.”
The resulting film, Dont Look Back, is one of the quintessential rock movies of the 1960s, tagging along with the young singer-songwriter just as he’s ditching his persona of a folk-singing poet and preparing to embrace electric guitars. The Dylan we meet in the documentary is magnetic, surly, exceptionally witty — and, above all, unguarded in a way he never would be again. As for the film’s iconic opening, in which Dylan holds a series of cue cards printed with some of the lyrics to “Subterranean Homesick Blues” as the song plays on the soundtrack, it became the model for the modern music video.
Dont Look Back took more than a year to find a distributor — many balked at its shaky, gritty look — but despite its lofty reputation now, Pennebaker never conceived the film as a salute to the voice of a generation or as a conventional rock doc. “What I thought was, this person is trying to generate himself,” Pennebaker told The New York Times in 2016. “He’s trying to figure out who he is and what he wants to do. So I filmed him talking to people and listening to people. When the concerts came, I would only shoot little parts of them. I didn’t want it to be a music film. I wanted it to be a film about a person who was finding out who he was.”
In Dont Look Back’s wake, Pennebaker became an in-demand filmmaker among rock artists, whether shooting the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival for Monterey Pop or witnessing the power of David Bowie and Depeche Mode’s concerts. But his tastes were wide-ranging: He also made a film about John DeLorean, 1981’s DeLorean, in which Pennebaker followed the car designer around Europe as he showed off his namesake vehicle. And then there was 1983’s Rockaby, about the preparations to stage a Samuel Beckett play. It was also during this time that he married Chris Hedegus, who had been his collaborator since the late ‘70s. They continued their creative partnership for the next several decades, peaking with 1993’s The War Room, which spotlighted Clinton’s chief strategists James Carville and George Stephanopoulos and gave a rare glimpse into how a modern campaign is waged. The film earned Pennebaker his only Oscar nomination.
Pennebaker may have trained his cameras on political figures and other newsworthy subjects, but he insisted that his films weren’t works of advocacy but, rather, simple reporting. “Whatever happens when you’re shooting necessarily becomes part of your film because it’s what you saw,” he said in 2016. “We’re not making a sermon. I think that’s the failure in a lot of current documentaries. They’re sermonizing, and for perfectly understandable reasons — they want people to act better, or whatever. It’s the same reason the bishops sermonize, but that’s not our kind of filmmaking.”
He backed up his claim in recent films like Startup.com (which Hedegus co-directed alongside Jehane Noujaim) and Unlocking the Cage, which located the personal, human story within the national headlines. Unlocking the Cage followed attorney Steve Wise as he fights for animal rights through the court system, but as always Pennebaker wanted to look at the individuals rather than the larger apparatus. It also helped that he was often captivated by the people he documented. “Could I make a film about somebody I didn’t like, or whose political message I disagreed with? Probably,” he once said. “But it wouldn’t be as much fun to do.”
Pennebaker received his only Emmy nomination in 2004 for Elaine Stritch at Liberty, and the following year the International Documentary Association awarded him with its Career Achievement Award. In 2013, he received an Honorary Oscar. But perhaps the strongest indicator of his legacy is the number of homages made to his work, particularly Dont Look Back, which has been spoofed and copied in everything from Bob Roberts to I’m Not There. And while others would often credit him for being a groundbreaking documentarian, he never liked the word “documentary” being used to describe his vivid, candid films.
“For me, I think of them as home movies,” he said in 2015, “because they’re made by one person and not made with the expectancy of a large return. They’re made the way music is written, or books. It’s just one person’s take on what’s going on around them. … You shouldn’t be the adversary, with a lot of equipment to protect you. You should really be vulnerable just as the people you film are vulnerable.”