• Follow us


A Tribute to D.A. Pennebaker: Don’t Look Back

Had D.A. Pennebaker never done anything but hop a flight to London, 16mm camera in tow, and follow around a scrawny young singer who jousted with journalists, was worshipped as a frizzy-haired god and entertained himself with entourage-fueled shenanigans, he would still have secured himself a place in rock history and film history. The best-known picture of the documentarian, known as “Penny” to friends and colleagues, finds the then-39-year-old wearing a top hat, jauntily tilted to one side. A camera is hoisted on his shoulder, covering one half of his face. His left index finger is pointing up and placed in front of his eye. He’s in the background, right where he always wanted to be. He looks happy to have a ringside seat to history being made. Sitting right in front of him, uncharacteristically in focus, is his subject: the ’65 edition of Bob Dylan.

Related ENGLAND - 1965: Bob Dylan smokes a cigarette as D.A. Pennebaker films for the documentary film 'Don't Look Back' about Dylan's 1965 tour of England. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images) D.A. Pennebaker, Legendary Documentarian, Dead at 94 Inside Criterion's Incredible Restoration of Dylan Doc 'Don't Look Back'

We take it for granted now that Dont Look Back, the chronicle of Dylan confronting the modern celebrity game and giving it the Bronx cheer, is the definitive look at the troubadour poised between reluctant prophet and full-on rock star. It took Pennebaker two years to get anyone to show the film in public; he eventually found a porn-theater operator in San Francisco to give it a screen in a small moviehouse, where it ran for over a year. The litany of put-ons and put-downs captured on film still drop jaws. The all-access pass we get still feels thrillingly, and sometimes uncomfortably intimate. (See: Donovan.) You are there in the Royal Albert Hall’s audience as he plays. You are there in the backrooms as Albert Grossman negotiates deals and in the middle of entourage banter. You are there next to Dylan, getting impatient with reporters, goofing with Joan Baez and Bob Neuwirth, and almost catching up to that thin, mercurial sound he was chasing. You are there because Pennebaker was there.

The filmmaker, who died of natural causes on August 1st at the age of 94, had a knack for being at the right place at the right time, his finger on the Arriflex trigger. He knew that the closer you could get, and the more you could blend into the scenery so the subject forgot you were there, the more likely you were to capture something akin to truth 24 frames per second. Donn Alan Pennebaker had originally studied to be an engineer before a brief apprenticeship with Francis Thompson led him to nonfiction filmmaking. Early works, like Daybreak Express (1953) and Baby (1954) were essentially experimental shorts, with the former demonstrating a nice blend of music and image and the latter proving to D.A. that, in his own words, “I should be watching, not directing.”

Soon, he’d join a documentarian murder’s row — Robert Drew, Richard Leacock, Albert Maysles, Terence Macartney-Filgate — and help form a filmmaking unit at Time Inc. Works like Primary (1960) and Crisis (1963) aren’t just Kennedy-era political time capsules. They helped give birth to an entirely new form of observational moviemaking, often dubbed “direct cinema.” They are Documentary 2.0’s ground zero. “[President Kennedy] never saw us as the six o’clock news,” Pennebaker would say at a panel in 2016. “We were history cameras.”

Part of the reason Drew & Co. were able to capture moments on the fly was thanks to a technological innovation that Pennebaker helped initiate, in the form of a new camera that could sync-sound with images much more efficiently. (They made Life magazine foot the bill.) He’d further customize his weapon of choice when he went off his own, making it more lightweight and adding a grip that could allow someone to mount it on their shoulder. That’s the camera you see in that famous Dont Look Back shot. That’s the one he’d bring to Monterey International Pop Music Festival in 1967, loaded with new high-speed film, when he was invited to cover the event, resulting in Monterey Pop (1968), widely recognized as the first modern concert movie. (Jazz on a Summer’s Day came in 1959, but this was a whole new ballgame.) Hendrix setting his guitar on fire. The Who smashing their gear. Otis Redding and Janis Joplin, in all of their ragged soul-shouting glory. Mama Cass fangirling out and Mickey Dolenz bopping blissfully to Ravi Shankar. Welcome to the Sixties. Have a nice trip.

Pennebaker’s music docs — god, those music docs. They form their own separate canon. Penny was there at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1973 when David Bowie performed the final Ziggy Stardust concert, which is why we can still thrill to see the performer in his silver spaceman tunic singing about leper messiahs and rock & roll suicides. (Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, 1973.) He was in Toronto in 1969 when John Lennon performed alongside Little Richard, Eric Clapton and Bo Diddly. (John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band: Sweet Toronto, 1971.) He and his longtime professional/life partner Chris Hegedus were at the Rose Bowl in 1988 when Depeche Mode finished off their Music for the Masses tour (Depeche Mode 101, 1989.) in Pasadena and at the Ryman in Nashville, Tennessee in 2000 when Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch and more perform old-timey cuts from the bestselling bluegrass soundtrack to O Brother Where Art Thou? (Down From the Mountain, 2000.)

What strikes you the most about these movies aren’t just the grand performances but the smaller, off-the-cuff moments he gets from these famous people: Dylan typing away in London; Mama Cass mouthing “wow!” after “Ball and Chain”; Bowie joking with his wife Angie about make-up; T-Bone Burnett trying to get a bluegrass guitarist, of all folks, to speed up a tempo; Dave Gahan singing along to Roxy. Music’s “Love Is the Drug” while playing pinball. And with Depeche Mode 101, Pennebaker and Hegedus had the foresight to embed two fellow filmmakers on a bus that was taking a gaggle of teen-to-twentysomething superfans across the country to that Rose Bowl show, capturing all of their interactions and arguments and drunken revelry. What happens, in other words, when people stop singing the lyrics to “Stripped” and start getting real? An IRL star is born. Three years later, MTV’s The Real Word would codify the notion into an industry.

That combination of putting you in the middle of something as a spectator and behind the scenes as a participant simultaneously wasn’t just confined to his music-related projects. Town Bloody Hall (1979) — the unsung gem of his vital filmography — watches as Norman Mailer and a who’s who of second-wave feminists spar in a 1971 intellectual summit in New York City. It took Hegedus convincing D.A. that the footage, which they’d been sitting on for years, could actually be cobbled together in to something usable; to watch this verité masterpiece today is both a thrilling time warp and a sobering reminder that plus ça change, etc. The War Room (1993) drops you in the room where it happens as Bill Clinton and his strategists, including George Stephanopoulos and the ragin’ Cajun himself, James Carville, plot his presidential campaign — you won’t find a more insightful look at how the political sausage gets made in the ‘90s and how that was continuously morphing before our eyes. Original Cast Album: Company (1970) catches every bitchy, bleary-eyed, brilliant moment of Stephen Sondheim and the late, great Hal Prince putting the cast members of the Tony-winning play through their soundtrack-recording paces. The fact that people are catching up to this singular cringe-comic doc thanks to Documentary Now‘s pitch-perfect parody feels like major win-win.

This is what great observational documentarians do: They capture something large in the foreground and something telling in the periphery, preserving everything in amber yet making it all feel so alive. This is what Pennebaker did throughout his career, from the very beginning up until the end, as his last film Unlocking the Cage — a 2016 portrait of the animal-rights activist Stephen M. Wise that he co-directed with Hegedus — can attest. His contributions regarding how we look at the history of the later half of the 29th century is profound. His impact on nonfiction filmmaking isn’t just invaluable but unfathomable. “If a new generation of filmmakers is going to be interested in the film form called ‘documentary,'” he notes in the book Imagining Reality, “it will only be because it throws off new sparks, not old news.” Pennebaker turned that concept into a genuine reality every time he turned on a camera and pointed. And each time he did it, he never looked back.

In This Article: D.A. Pennebaker, Documentary, obit

Want more Rolling Stone? Sign up for our newsletter.

Read More

Leave A Comment

More News

Screen Rant

On Becoming A God In Central Florida Review New! 2019-08-25 08:08:49Kirsten Dust stars in Showtime’s pitch-black new comedy On Becoming a God in Central Florida, which puts a distressing spin on the American Drea

Avengers: Endgame Interview - VFX Supervisor Dan DeLeeuw New! 2019-08-25 08:08:35Avengers: Endgame's VFX Supervisor Dan DeLeeuw explains just how Marvel planned the final battle against Thanos and his armies.

Star Wars 9's Palpatine Is A TOY, Not New! 2019-08-25 08:08:31The Emperor Palpatine seen on Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker's teaser poster from D23 is actually from a toy, not a movie or TV show.

Cameron's filmography has generally had solid ratings with New! 2019-08-25 08:08:20James Cameron has directed some well known movies like The Terminator, Avatar, and Titanic. See where Rotten Tomatoes ranks his movies.

New Joker Trailer Coming Wednesday, Cryptic Clips Reveal New! 2019-08-25 07:08:58A series of cryptic Instagram posts by director Todd Phillips teases the upcoming release of a brand new trailer for Joaquin Phoenix's Joker movie.

10 Other MCU Characters Who Might Be Worthy New! 2019-08-25 07:08:56Thor's hammer can only be wielded by those who are worthy, so who else in the MCU would be able to lift the ancient, legendary weapon?

Marvel's New Rereleases Aren't About The Fans - New! 2019-08-25 07:08:54Marvel Studios and Sony Pictures both seem to be rereleases their films now - but they're less interested in fans than box office takings.

Angel: 5 Best Couples (And 5 Worst) | New! 2019-08-25 07:08:51Buffy The Vampire spin-off Angel gave us many unique pairings. Here are our choices for the best and worst couples.

Arnold Schwarzenegger's 10 Best Movies, According To Rotten New! 2019-08-25 07:08:50Arnold Schwarzenegger is basically a god among action movie stars. These are his ten best films (according to rotten tomatoes).

Harry Potter: The Patronus Charm Explained (& How New! 2019-08-25 07:08:46The Patronus Charm was one of the most powerful spells used in Harry Potter. Here's an explanation of the spell and how it was used in the series.

The Leftovers: 10 Storylines That Were Never Resolved New! 2019-08-25 07:08:46The Leftovers may be finished, but that doesn't mean that there aren't still questions fans want to see answered about the show.

How Far Into The 14,000,605 Futures Did Doctor New! 2019-08-25 07:08:37Doctor Strange lived through 14,000,605 futures in Avengers: Infinity War, but did his vision of the future stop with Thanos' defeat or keep going?

Rolling Stone Latest Movies

‘Ready or Not’ Review: Here Kills the Bride 2019-08-22 16:28:33In a film that's 'Bridesmaids' meets 'The Purge,' a new wife plays a deadly game of hide and seek.

Edward Norton Unravels a Mystery in First ‘Motherless 2019-08-22 13:11:13Thom Yorke's "Daily Battles" features in preview of actor/director's adaptation of Jonathan Lethem's novel

Watch Adam Driver Expose CIA Torture in ‘The 2019-08-22 10:32:09Annette Bening, Jon Hamm, Michael C. Hall also star in film about Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA torture techniques

‘Fiddler: Miracle of Miracles’ Review — An Untraditional 2019-08-21 14:04:16Max Lewkowicz's documentary exposes the behind-the-scenes drama and on-stage magic of 'Fiddler on the Roof'

‘Brittany Runs a Marathon’ Review: Star Jillian Bell 2019-08-21 13:10:31The comic actress is hilarious and heartfelt as an aimless slacker on a mission to turn her life around

Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie Portray the 2019-08-21 12:35:28Film dramatizes the sexual-harassment allegations made toward Roger Ailes

Obamas Talk Storytelling in Preview for Netflix Doc 2019-08-21 12:26:11"We want people to be able to get outside of themselves and experience and understand the lives of somebody else," former president says of film, th

Spider-Man’s Marvel Cinematic Universe Involvement in Jeopardy as 2019-08-20 18:04:41Kevin Feige may no longer produce future Spider-Man films if negotiations between studios falter

Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss Confirmed for Fourth ‘Matrix’ 2019-08-20 17:10:46Production set to begin in early 2020, with Lana Wachowski attached to write, direct

James Bond 25 Confirms Title: ‘No Time to 2019-08-20 14:43:57Daniel Craig returns in the latest installment of the franchise, set for an April 2020 release date

D.A. Pennebaker Looks Back on ‘Monterey Pop’: The 2019-08-05 11:37:57The filmmaker spoke with Rolling Stone about knowing Jimi Hendrix and his amazement at Janis Joplin, Otis Redding, and Ravi Shankar, half a century af

Rob Sheffield: Pennebaker, ‘Monterey Pop’ and the ‘Wow’ 2019-08-04 12:09:21Rolling Stone's pop critic pays tribute to D.A. Pennebaker, his era-defining concert film and that beautiful Janis Joplin/Mama Cass moment

NYT > Movies

A Film Career Built on Videotape (Sex and 2019-08-22 23:48:03On the 30th anniversary of “Sex, Lies and Videotape,” a look back at Steven Soderbergh’s first feature and how it changed the indepe

‘Friedkin Uncut’ Review: An Acclaimed Director Accepts Many 2019-08-22 23:07:21In a new documentary, Quentin Tarantino, Willem Dafoe and others genuflect at the altar of William Friedkin, the director behind “The French Con

‘Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool’ Review: A 2019-08-22 23:07:18This documentary looks at the many sides of the innovative trumpeter and bandleader.

‘Jawline’ Review: Lives Measured in Follower Counts 2019-08-22 23:06:49Behind the laughs in this new documentary about social-media stars lies an unsettling account of the Generation-Z influencer economy.

‘Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles’ Review: Inside a 2019-08-22 23:06:36A fascinating love letter to “Fiddler on the Roof” asks: What makes the quintessentially Jewish musical speak to everyone?

‘Vita & Virginia’ Review: A Real-Life Affair Made 2019-08-22 23:06:20This film about Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolfe is a droopy tale of dissatisfied women and their brushed-aside men.

‘Brittany Runs a Marathon’ Review: Racing With a 2019-08-22 23:05:59This comedy glosses over its protagonist’s emotional wounds and instead aims to treat what’s physical.

‘Give Me Liberty’ Review: A Wild Ride With 2019-08-22 23:05:34In this jolt of a movie, a driver and a passenger hurtle through Milwaukee together, finding each other as they open up a world.

Genèse Review: Crossing Borders Between Films 2019-08-22 23:02:48Philippe Lesage takes chances, and succeeds with boldly original form and narrative.

‘Hot Air’ Review: A Right-Wing Radio Host Learns 2019-08-22 23:02:45Steve Coogan stars in this cumbersome political comedy.

‘Angel Has Fallen’ Review: Returning to Grace, One 2019-08-22 23:02:41The hero of “Olympus Has Fallen” and “London Has Fallen” finds himself on the run in a sequel steeped in today’s headlin

‘No Place Like Home’ Review: Self-Discovery in Jamaica 2019-08-22 23:02:17A lively reggae soundtrack and a Jamaican setting: It’s not “The Harder They Come” but Perry Henzell’s long-lost follow-up to

L.A. Times - Movie News

Review: 'Overcomer' reaches the finish line — eventually 2019-08-23 00:21:32"Overcomer," the latest faith-based drama from the Kendrick brothers, follows a high-school coach who finds inspiration in a young runner.

Review: 'Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles' speaks to 2019-08-22 17:23:54The documentary "Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles," featuring Lin-Manuel Miranda among others, goes behind the scenes of the legendary musical "Fiddl

Review: 'Jacob's Ladder,' another remake nobody asked for, 2019-08-22 16:38:58"Jacob's Ladder" remake stars Michael Ealy; Steve Coogan as a right-wing radio host in "Hot Air"; the thriller-comedy "Tone-Deaf" and the inten

Review: 'Angel Has Fallen' but Gerard Butler manages 2019-08-22 16:38:06'Angel Has Fallen' brings back Gerard Butler's Secret Service agent, this time framed for the attempted assassination of the president.

Review: 'This Is Not Berlin' vividly conjures a 2019-08-22 16:05:12Set in 1986 Mexico City, Hari Sama's coming-of-age drama pulses with life and energy.

Review: 'Brittany Runs a Marathon' gets real about 2019-08-22 15:37:35"Brittany Runs a Marathon" is a rich and complex entertainment starring a dazzling Jillian Bell.

Review: Queer drama about a straight boy is 2019-08-22 15:11:58Rhys Ernst's superbly acted "Adam," adapted for the screen by Ariel Schrag from her own novel, is tenderly provocative and markedly vital.

Column: Middle school is the new high school. 2019-08-22 11:00:24Middle school is the new high school, so why do film and TV continue to insist that life begins in ninth grade?

Critic's Choice: 'The Souvenir' and 'Last Black Man' 2019-08-21 20:32:28"The Souvenir" and "The Last Black Man in San Francisco," two standouts from this year's Sundance Film Festival, blur the boundaries between fict

Review: 'Asako I & II' is a playful, 2019-08-21 20:30:15Ryûsuke Hamaguchi's quietly entrancing drama pays moving and obsessive homage to Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo."

Review: 'Jawline' examines the fleeting fame of live 2019-08-21 19:39:44'Jawline,' a Sundance jury prize winner, documents the quest for fame and the yearning for connection in digital age.

Review: A grim fairy tale, 'Tigers Are Not 2019-08-21 16:39:49Issa López's thriller "Tigers Are Not Afraid" filters a Mexican gangland saga through the prism of a child's fairy tale.

CinemaBlend Latest Content

Could Jungle Cruise And Pirates Of The Caribbean New! 2019-08-25 17:00:33It's a cool idea, savvy?

The Eternals Stars Lovingly Trash Talk The Avengers: New! 2019-08-25 15:41:55The Eternals could DESTROY the Avengers. Any day. Any time.

Walt Disney World's Star Wars Galactic Starcruiser Hotel New! 2019-08-25 15:28:54When can I book a room?

Hobbs And Shaw Is Now 2019's Biggest Non-Disney New! 2019-08-25 14:47:49Disney/Marvel/Lucasfilm will own 2019. We get it. But what about everyone else? Hobbs & Shaw has some stiff competition coming up, including more

New Details Revealed For Disneyland's Avengers Campus, Spider-Man New! 2019-08-25 14:36:14This sounds awesome

Emperor Palpatine's 'Instrumental' Star Wars: The Rise Of New! 2019-08-25 13:52:40Emperor Palpatine is about to become far more important.

Angel Has Fallen Box Office: The Threequel Surprises New! 2019-08-25 12:47:01Given the way in which sequels have performed during summer 2019, expectations weren't exactly all that high for the opening weekend box office perfo

James Gunn Warns Fans About A Suicide Squad New! 2019-08-25 12:34:00He also confirmed that nothing has been confirmed. Because there is no spoon.

Kevin Feige Opens Up About Spider-Man Leaving The New! 2019-08-25 11:22:03MCU architect Kevin Feige expressed his gratitude toward Sony for the opportunity to include Spidey in the MCU.

Joker Star Marc Maron Blasts Outraged Marvel Fans New! 2019-08-25 11:11:14When you're rude, don't be surprised when people are rude in return. #TheMoreYouKnow

Is Fast And Furious 9 Bringing Back Brian? New! 2019-08-25 10:16:19How will the 2020 movie handle Brian's story, now that Mia is confirmed to be back for the first time since Furious 7?

The Cast Of Crazy Rich Asians One Year New! 2019-08-25 09:06:32Last year's lesser-known names in the record-breaking romantic comedy are now nabbing some exciting leading roles!

Movie News

Breaking Bad Movie Trailer Is Here 2019-08-24 18:50:42Netflix has unleashed a teaser trailer for the Breaking Bad movie streaming October 11.

James Gunn's The Suicide Squad Gets Comedian Steve 2019-08-24 18:31:48King Shark will reportedly be making his big screen debut in James Gunn's upcoming movie The Suicide Squad.

Disney Animation Announces Raya and the Last Dragon 2019-08-24 18:26:39Disney has revealed a new original animated movie, Raya and the Last Dragon, starring Awkwafina and Cassandra Steele.

New Mulan Footage Brings Down the House at 2019-08-24 18:22:27Disney's D23 Expo pulled out all of the stops this afternoon and even included some new footage of their live-action adaptation of Mulan.

Maleficent 2 Storms D23 with Spooky Mistress of 2019-08-24 18:12:21Disney showcased brand new footage from Maleficent: Mistress of Evil at D23, with Angelina Jolie on hand to present the movie.

Tom Holland & Kevin Feige Confirm Spider-Man Is 2019-08-24 17:48:54Marvel Studios boss Kevin Feige and Peter Parker star Tom Holland have broken their silence on the Spider-Man dispute.

Disney's Jungle Cruise Footage Arrives at D23 with 2019-08-24 17:07:13Disney's upcoming Jungle Cruise movie was teased by Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt at today's D23 Expo.

Frozen 2 Poster Drops at D23 Along with 2019-08-24 16:54:19Disney revealed brand new details about Frozen 2 at the D23 Expo, including who Evan Rachel Wood and Sterling K. Brown are playing.

Breaking Bad Movie Title and Plot Just Leaked 2019-08-24 16:47:55It looks like Netflix may have inadvertently tried to steal some thunder from the mighty Disney this weekend.

Here's Everything Disney, Marvel & Pixar Just Announced 2019-08-24 16:23:56Lucasfilm, Marvel Studios, Disney live action, Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios unveiled so many projects this weekend at D23, it's mind-blowi

Rise of the Skywalker Gives Rey a Double-Bladed 2019-08-24 16:04:23The Rise of Skywalker footage shown at D23 this afternoon may point to a new direction for Rey.

Pixar's Onward Gets Sneak Peek at D23 with 2019-08-24 15:50:30Pixar Animation Studios has revealed the official poster and a first look at their upcoming movie Onward.

Disclaimer and Notice:WorldProNews.com is not responsible of these news or any information published on this website.