The Greats: D.A. Pennebaker

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Whenever an older, revered icon of the film industry dies, there are plenty of testimonials and remembrances written about that person. But it’s sad that we only take the time to fully appreciate these people’s brilliance after their passing. Hence, The Greats, a biweekly column that celebrates cinema’s living legends.

D.A. Pennebaker makes documentaries about the famous that are so intimate you’d swear his subjects were old friends or family members. Time actually asked him once how his home movies are different than his films. “I think of all my movies as home movies!” he replied. “It’s just that some are more expensive than others.”

Throughout his career, Pennebaker has primarily focused on musicians, although he’s also filmed politicians, actors and authors. We’ve become accustomed to celebrity portraits being fawning. His aren’t necessarily mean or critical, but they do a remarkable job of depicting the worlds of entertainment and politics in a straightforward, almost blasé way. The rich and influential may not be like the rest of us, but Pennebaker’s documentaries have brought out their humanity, even as they suggest what ineffable qualities elevate these people in our society.

Born in July 1925, Pennebaker grew up around Chicago with his father, a photographer. (His parents divorced when he was young.) The young man had a mind for both mathematics and art: He dabbled in writing and painting, but he went to Yale for mechanical engineering. (Pennebaker also served as an engineer for the Naval Air Corps in World War II.) By the early 1950s, though, he became interested in making movies. His earliest was Daybreak Express, a five-minute non-narrative that follows a train route in New York City. The short was built around the Duke Ellington song that gave the film its name. “I feel in debt to Ellington and instinctively to all musicians,” Pennebaker later told Stop Smiling. “They taught me my art. The very nature of film is musical, because it uses time as a basis for its energy. It needs to go from here to there, whereas pictures and paintings are just there. With movies, you’re putting something together that’s not going to be totally comprehensible until the end. It’s the concept of the novel and the sonnet—you need to get to the end, to see if you like it and decide what it’s about. With stills, there’s always the same instant, frozen and beguiling, but lifeless. A single note. With film, the moment doesn’t hold—it rushes by, and you must deal with it like you do music and real life.”

Daybreak Express established a way of working for Pennebaker: no talking-head interviews, thrusting the viewer into the middle of the action, letting the movie be an experience. “Really, I’m trying to be Ibsen,” he admitted in 2007. “That’s my secret hope: that I could somehow turn into Ibsen. There are things happening all the time to real people. You don’t have to enact them or write them. I’m trying to make a play, not an educational device.”

His work on 1960’s Primary was his next major achievement, in part because of the technological breakthrough it inspired. Produced by Robert Drew and featuring camerawork from (among others) Pennebaker and Albert Maysles, Primary followed Democratic presidential hopefuls John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey on the campaign trail. The fly-on-the-wall intimacy popularized the concept of cinéma vérité in documentaries, building off the idea of direct cinema that had been pioneered several decades earlier by nonfiction filmmakers like Robert Flaherty.

“We didn’t set out to make shaky, bad-focus narrative films, though people still think we did,” Pennebaker said in High Times. “It wasn’t anything we intended to do, it was all we could do. You couldn’t carry tripods or lights around, you couldn’t even take a person to do the lights. We developed everything down to a carryable state, which meant there were certain things you weren’t going to do with a camera, and that determined our style.” But Pennebaker’s direct-cinema approach was also a rejection of traditional, polished narrative storytelling. “When I see the lighting in most Hollywood movies, and the camera that never shakes, it’s all so dead,” he said. “I like to see some life behind the camera. For years I listened to my 78 records, and I never heard the surface noise. It’s the same when it becomes the defects in our filmmaking. The shaking, the zooms you get when you have to focus, I don’t notice them. All I see is that these films are alive in ways that you can’t help.”

To achieve the intimacy in Primary, Pennebaker and cinematographer Ricky Leacock used their mechanical ingenuity to construct a new type of camera in which the sound was synchronized with the image. “Ricky was a physics major at Harvard,” he recalled to the A.V. Club, “and I was an engineer at Yale, in electronics. … We knew what the parameters [for the camera] should be, that it should be light, it should be quiet, and it should be sync [sound]. At that point, there was nothing, so we had to make a camera, and the making of a camera got us into working out things that if we had just gone to a camera designer and said, ‘Make a camera,’ we would never have gotten. … We were making what we now have as a video camera, but at the time, we didn’t really know that that’s what we needed.”

The breakthrough allowed for a more freewheeling kind of filmmaking, and Pennebaker soon used it to document a U.K. acoustic tour from rising star Bob Dylan. Pennebaker wasn’t a huge Dylan fan—he only knew a song or two—and had no idea that what they made together was, outside of A Hard Day’s Night, destined to be the most significant music movie of the 1960s.

“When I made Dont Look Back with Dylan, we just shook hands,” Pennebaker said in 2011. “It was 50/50 … I think that bond means you will be fair about money, but it also means you’re not making the film just for yourself. You’re making it for the subject because it’s all he’ll ever have of that experience, and it should be as true for him as it is for you.” Far from a disposable fan item, Dont Look Back is a bracing portrait of an artist colliding headlong with both his growing fame and the confusion of those in the press who don’t know how to approach this mercurial young man—or the generation he represented. Most famous for its iconic, much-parodied non sequitur opening—Dylan flipping white cards with lyrics from “Subterranean Homesick Blues”—Dont Look Back somehow manages to capture the promise of the decade’s counterculture movement, all embodied in a willful little genius who loved tormenting reporters and Donovan with equally bratty gusto.

Explaining the movie’s eternal appeal, Pennebaker used an analogy. “In the ’60s, every kid would buy certain records,” he once explained. “To their parents, the record covers were just pictures. But for [the kids] it was a whole secret symbolic language that told them what kind of dope to smoke, where things were hidden, where to go and all kinds of things they naturally needed to know. Film is one more way you can convey secret information. Dont Look Back provided coded information for people who didn’t want the other generation to know what they were really into. When the older generation looked at it, all they saw was out-of-focus, shaky pictures they weren’t used to.”

From there, Pennebaker became the unofficial chronicler of rock ’n’ roll’s ascending cultural relevance. 1968’s Monterey Pop, which documented the previous year’s Monterey Pop Festival (and featured performances from Jimi Hendrix, the Who and others), isn’t as iconic as concert films that came in its wake like Gimme Shelter, Woodstock or The Last Waltz, but those movies’ DNA is embedded in Pennebaker’s you-are-there film. Beyond spotlighting some great songs, Monterey Pop practically vibrates with the energy of the new: Everyone involved seems so excited about the possibility of what music can do. “I wanted it to be a momentary history of music,” he told High Times, “and I knew I had to end up someplace that people had never been before. That of course was Ravi Shankar [the documentary’s closing act]. So Hendrix and all the rest had to build in that order. Generally in this type of film you have a narrator, but what was wonderful was I had the music, and that became my narration.” Music continued to serve as his narration in subsequent concert films for John Lennon and Yoko Ono (Sweet Toronto), David Bowie (Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars) and Depeche Mode (101).

In the early 1980s, he married his collaborator Chris Hegedus, who had been co-directing projects with him since 1977’s PBS special The Energy War (about President Jimmy Carter’s embattled natural gas bill). Together, they formed Pennebaker Hegedus Films, waiting for offers, deciding whether a particular project calls to them. “We’re sort of like Robinson Crusoe,” Pennebaker explained in 2006. “We’re sitting on this island, day after day, no particular thoughts come to us. But somewhere in the back of our heads is the idea we’re supposed to get off of here! Then one day you see a footprint—and that gives us a sense of action. We’re always looking for that footprint. The film has to come to us in some fashion where we understand it wants to happen. And then we join hands with it and see what comes. You’d have a hard time selling stock in this company on that basis.”

(“I think you just have to really respect the other person,” Hegedus told The Guardian when asked how they balance a marriage and a working relationship. “It’s easier when we’re shooting. Sometimes it’s not going well and people don’t want you around—so it’s very nice to have a partner because you’re feeling very unloved. It’s a little dicier during the editing process, when more of the creative decisions happen … We usually get divorced a couple of times during that period.”)

Deceptively artless and casual, Pennebaker’s films are at their best when they seem like he somehow just got lucky and pointed his camera in the right direction. But don’t be fooled: Not anyone could have given us something like The War Room, the 1993 film co-directed by Pennebaker and Hegedus that followed the brain trust behind presidential candidate Bill Clinton’s campaign. Making stars of nerdy George Stephanopoulos and gregarious James Carville—20 years later, they remain TV fixtures—The War Room was filled with the telling detail and the juicy rush of primetime politics. In the process, it became a precursor to the behind-the-scenes dramas of programs like The West Wing, in which the people operating in the shadows were as interesting as those in the spotlight. Pennebaker also saw the movie as something of an Odd Couple-like contrast in personalities. “We were lucky to have the opposites of James and George,” he told Filmmaker in 2013. “They had such admiration for each other. I think the film is a buddy story because of that.”

(As an aside, Hegedus co-directed with Jehane Noujaim another “buddy story” of sorts with 2001’s Startup.com, about a failed dot-com enterprise between two good friends. Pennebaker served as one of the documentary’s producers, and the movie exudes the same startling nonchalance that’s been a hallmark of his and his wife’s films.)

Documentary filmmakers don’t command the public’s attention the way a feature director can. But Pennebaker’s peers noticed: In 2012, he received an Honorary Oscar, the Academy saluting the man “who redefined the language of film and taught a generation of filmmakers to look to reality for inspiration.” In his acceptance speech, he barely talked about himself, instead focusing on the subjects of his films and his love for Hegedus. “The only thing that ever bothered me was being a fly on the wall,” he once told TCM about his work. “I didn’t like to feel like a fly on the wall. I’d much rather be a friend in the room.” And in his films, we were all invited.

Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.

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