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D.A. Pennebaker

by Glenn Dunks

D.A. Pennebaker, aka Donn Alan, the legend of documentary who famously captured the growing counter culture music scene, American presidents and a particularly memorable Original Cast Recording, died this weekend at age 94.

Like many of his contemporaries who are today regarded as among the most influential of the form like Albert Maysles and Frederick Wiseman, Pennebaker was never really embraced by the Academy. He was nominated alongside his wife and frequent collaborator Chris Hegedus in 1994 for The War Room about the 1992 presidential campaign for Bill Clinton, but was eventually awarded an honorary statue in 2013 for his undeniably immense contribution to film...

Most of Pennebaker’s most famous films were made in the 1960s at a time when he was at the frontline of advanced documentary filmmaking techniques. His most well-known is easily Dont Look Back (apostrophes be damned) about Bob Dylan, which famously opens with the video for “Subterranean Homesick Blues” filmed by Pennebaker behind the Savoy Hotel. The movie was hailed at the sixth greatest documentary of all time by Time Out and the “Homesick” video is remembered to this day as one of the earliest examples of the form. Dont Look Back was inducted into the Library of Congress in 1998.

He followed the Bob Dylan doc with a cavalcade of musical superstars in Monterey Pop featuring Janis Joplin, the Mamas & the Papas, Ravi Shankar, Jefferson Airplane, The Who, Otis Redding and Jimi Hendrix. He would document more musicians throughout his career including David Bowie (Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars), John Lennon and Yoko Ono (John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band: Sweet Toronto), Depeche Mode (Depeche Mode 101), Chuck Berry (Chuck Berry: Rock and Roll) and would return to his footage from Monterey Pop Festival with later documentaries The Jimi Hendrix Experience: Live at Monterey and Shake! Otis at Monterey. More recently, 65 Revisited saw Pennebaker return to Dylan with a collection of rare outtakes and performances from their time filming Dont Look Back.

Another famous collaborator is Elaine Stritch. He famously captured her repeated attempts to record “Ladies Who Lunch” from Sondheim’s Company in Original Cast Album. Initially meant to be the first in a series of Broadway specials for TV, the production ultimately became a movie. Over 30 years later, Pennebaker would direct her live one-woman show Elaine Stritch at Liberty, winning an Emmy for Stritch and Frazer Pennebaker, Donn’s son, as a producer. Donn was nominated for an Emmy, too, for directing.

Other notable films include, Town Bloody Hall (featuring Norman Mailer and Germaine Greer and one of my favourite docs of the ‘70s) and his final feature film Unlocking the Cage about animal rights for which he received another Emmy nomination.

My personal favourite Pennebaker film is actually his earliest. A short film from 1953 called Daybreak Express filmed on the since demolished Third Avenue elevated subway in Manhattan. Set to Duke Ellington’s song of the same name, it’s five minutes of stunningly shot New York life that you should all watch right now on the biggest screen you can find.

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Reader Comments (2)


August 4, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

Pennebaker was a Master. Thanks for your text, Glenn, and thanks for share "Daybreak Express", it's so beautiful!!!

August 5, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJoel (from Chile)

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