D.A. Pennebaker was a wildly productive documentarian with 60 credits amassed over a 50-plus year career. His greatest gift was his ability to find the counter culture pulse while all others flailed about trying to define a time that did not lend itself to easy categorization.
Among his greatest works are Monterey Pop from 1968. Commonly thought of as the first true concert film. Pop is a raw, electrifying work showcasing performances from – among others – Janis Joplin, The Who, The Byrds, The Grateful Dead, and perhaps most notably, Jimi Hendrix and Otis Redding. It was as if everyone who meant anything to that era could be found onstage, and Pennebaker exposed these great musicians in ways that music lovers and moviegoers had never seen before.
His documentary/concert film of David Bowie’s final performance with the Spiders from Mars was captured in 1973. It took six years of post-production before it was viewed at a film festival in 1979, and another four years for it to land in theaters with a limited release run. Some find the film uneven, but I think that may be the point. Showcasing Bowie (a character within a character) at the height of his ascent could not have been easy. Yet when you watch the film, you find Bowie to be revealing even when he’s trying not to be. I think Pennebaker understood that. The idea that capturing the artist in the midst of a deception tells you as much – if not more – about the subject than maybe even the truth does.
For 1993’s The War Room, Pennebaker (along with co-director Chris Hedgus) moved away from the characters he covered in popular music to step inside the minds of the even more inscrutable: politicians and – especially – those who support them. His remarkable access to Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign for president made stars of George Stephanoupolous and James Carville. While the titular head of the campaign, Clinton himself, existed almost entirely on the margins of the film, the inner workings of the campaign were laid bare in a way no one had ever seen before. It is an absolute landmark of political documentary filmmaking, and the standard that all others have failed to rise to since.
Of course, Pennebaker’s greatest work is the one that put him on the map in the first place and changed forever how we might see musicians and their creative process. With 1967’s quintessential Bob Dylan documentary, Don’t Look Back. If the phrases “lightning in a bottle” and “fly on the wall” had not been in existence at the time, you would have needed to invent them to describe the wonder of Pennebaker’s accomplishment. In the history of popular music, there may be no artist more mercurial, more impossible to peg, than Bob Dylan. In fact, I don’t know if you can say that Pennebaker revealed the true Dylan at all. With Dylan, you can fillet the epidermis, cut through bone and into the marrow, and still uncover more layers of mystery. Ironically, that’s what made Don’t Look Back so great. The timing of the film was serendipitous as well. In 1965 Dylan was about to confound his fan base by going electric. Shortly after he was injured in a terrible motorcycle accident that laid him up for a year and a half.
Don’t Look Back isn’t just a documentary, it’s a document. The kind of thing that belongs in the Library of Congress just as much as it does on your DVD shelf. It not only captures a towering character in the history of music, but in American history period, it does so at a time when the legend was still forming. Still becoming. Just drawing its first breath. It isn’t a film as much as it is a revelation. One that you can see one hundred times and still find new shades upon every viewing.
What we may not have known at the time was there were two legends at work in that film. Two creatures in a state of becoming. Two artists drawing new breath.
One was Bob Dylan. The other was D.A. Pennebaker.
D. A. Pennebaker died on August 1, 2019. He was 94 years old.
Sasha, Ryan, and Clarence have been stuck with me since April 27, 2018. Co-creator (with Ryan Adams) of the Reframe feature, staff writer, interviewer du jour, and a proud member of GALECA and the Indiana Film Journalists Association. I also scribe on boxing at NY Fights. My essay "My Black Grandpa" was shortlisted as "Best of Folklore" by The Bitter Southerner in 2018. My first work of fiction, "Eat 'Em Up, Tigers!" was published in Detroit Stories Quarterly in the 2020 summer edition.