Oscar-Winner D.A. Pennebaker, Trailblazer In Cinéma Vérité Filmmaking, Dies At 94

Aug 4, 2019

D.A. Pennebaker, a pioneering filmmaker who chronicled key moments in music as well as politics, has died at age 94. Pennebaker helped create the cinéma vérité, or direct cinema style of documentary.

He died on Aug. 1 of natural causes at his home in Sag Harbor, New York. His son, Frazer Pennebaker, confirmed his death with NPR.

In 2012, Pennebaker received an honorary Oscar, for being a filmmaker "who redefined the language of film and taught a generation of filmmakers to look to reality for inspiration."

His films include Dont Look Back, which followed Bob Dylan to England in 1965 as he transitioned from folk music to rock 'n' roll, and The War Room, an unflinching look at Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign.

Donn Alan Pennebaker was born in Evanston, Illinois in 1925.

He began his career as an assistant to documentarian Robert Drew, joining Drew Associates in 1959, where they made films about John F. Kennedy's 1960 campaign and ascent to the presidency.

Pennebaker's first famous foray into music documentaries came a few years later, when Bob Dylan's manager suggested Pennebaker accompany the young musician on tour in England.

"It was really just a handshake and I think that that's fair enough," Pennebaker told Fresh Air in 1989. "It's like a gravitational rule that held and that I could do almost anything I wanted," in terms of what he would be allowed to shoot. But "the entire thing could collapse instantly" if parts didn't appeal to everyone.

He went on to make dozens of films. Monterey Pop, which chronicled the 1967 Monterey Pop festival, features classic live performances by Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding, The Mamas & the Papas, The Who and many more. Perhaps, most memorable is the extended performance at the film's end by Ravi Shankar.

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"Usually I just did my films by myself, and suddenly the idea of having to do a concert film with four or five or six different cameramen was something I had never even thought about doing before," Pennebaker told NPR. "So it was kind of letting everybody go out and do whatever they thought a concert film should be."

David Bowie entrusted Pennebaker to film his final Ziggy Stardust show. The documentarian captured Bowie playing his iconic persona in the concert film, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.

Pennebaker's collaborations were prolific, from his 1971 documentary Town Bloody Hall an account of Pulitzer-winning author Norman Mailer clashing with feminist activists to the Emmy-nominated 2004 Elaine Stritch at Liberty, a portrait of the Broadway entertainer. Many of his films were made in partnership with his wife, filmmaker Chris Hegedus.

His last film, Unlocking The Cage, released in 2016, dealt with animal rights and legal appeals for personhood.

He is survived by his third wife, Chris Hegedus, eight children, three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

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