D.A. Pennebaker, 1925–2019
The documentarian who showed life up close
D.A. Pennebaker mastered the art of being a fly on the wall. In Don’t Look Back, the documentary filmmaker trailed Bob Dylan on his 1965 U.K. tour, catching revelatory and often unflattering moments. He recorded the cocky singer-songwriter clashing with an un-hip Time magazine journalist, intimidating folk singer Donovan, and needling his soon-to-be ex-girlfriend Joan Baez. Pennebaker captured these intimate moments with a portable camera he had developed that could record sound synchronized with images. He aimed to be invisible to his subjects—who included Broadway star Elaine Stritch in Original Cast Album: Company (1970) and Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign team in The War Room—and often placed his camera on the floor or a table. “If you’re setting up lights and tripods and you’ve got three assistants running around, people will want to get you out as fast as they can,” he said. But “if you make the camera the least important thing in the room, then it’s different.”
Born in Evanston, Ill., Donn Alan Pennebaker studied mechanical engineering at Yale and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said The Guardian (U.K.). After graduating in 1947, Pennebaker founded a company that used “then-primitive computer science to create a pioneering airline reservation system.” He sold the firm, thinking he’d dabble in writing and painting, but a friendship with filmmaker Francis Thompson led to a career behind the lens. For his first big film, Primary, Pennebaker spent five days trailing John F. Kennedy during the 1960 Democratic nomination race. Five years later, Dylan’s manager invited Pennebaker to tag along in England, if he paid his way.
The resulting documentary starts with an “oft-imitated scene” in which Dylan flips through cue cards displaying the lyrics to “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” said The New York Times. That sequence effectively created the music video. After Don’t Look Back, Pennebaker made another “musical landmark with Monterey Pop,” said the Associated Press, a chronicle of the 1967 rock festival where Jimi Hendrix famously set his guitar on fire. Pennebaker had a knack for catching such moments: In Town Bloody Hall (1979), a debate between author Norman Mailer and a panel of feminists is interrupted by stage invaders who hold an impromptu love-in with lesbian activist Jill Johnston. “It’s like playing blackjack,” Pennebaker said of documentary making. “You assume you’ll be lucky or you wouldn’t do it.” ■