DA Pennebaker, Groundbreaking Documentarian, Dies at 94

DA Pennebaker. Photo courtesy of Chris Hegedus

The Academy Award winning filmmaker DA Pennebaker, who helped define the modern documentary and whose films ranged from “Don’t Look Back,” which followed Bob Dylan’s 1965 solo tour of England, and “The War Room,” a behind-the scenes study of the Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign, died Thursday, August 1, at his home on Garden Street in Sag Harbor. He was 94.

Mr. Pennebaker, who was known by friends as Penny, was working on his autobiography, titled, “The Youngest Person in the Room,” when he died, said Chris Hegedus, his wife and partner in filmmaking.

Family members said the title of the unfinished book described perfectly a man with boundless energy who took an enthusiastic interest in everything from the origin of the universe to the species of birds that visited his backyard feeder and the accomplishments of his children and grandchildren.

“He had a totally curious mind that kept him boyish his whole life,” Ms. Hegedus said.

It was only after studying engineering at Yale University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and serving in the Navy during World War II that Mr. Pennebaker found his true calling. Unhappy as an engineer, he tried his hand first at writing when he shared an apartment with the novelist William Gaddis and then at painting, selling a few works, his wife said, but he was inspired to pick up a camera when a friend, Francis Thompson, showed him his short film, “N.Y., N.Y.,” which chronicled a day in the city.

Not long afterward, Mr. Pennebaker had completed his own short, “Daybreak Express,” a six-minute color film taken from a train on the soon-to-be-demolished Third Avenue elevated line at dawn and set to the music of Duke Ellington. From there, it was off to the races.

In the mid-’50s, Mr. Pennebaker worked with Robert Drew, who was leading a new film division at Time-Life and sought to create a new type of documentary that would be free of the scripted narration and historic footage that was so common in documentaries of that era.

DA Pennebaker on the set of Don’t Look Back. Photo courtesy of Chris Hegedus.

That approach, practiced by Mr. Drew, Mr. Pennebaker, and other well-known filmmakers, including Albert Maysles and Richard Leacock, is known as the cinema vérité style in which the filmmaker tries to capture his subjects in a spontaneous way without the encumbrance of scripts and formal shots. The style, once viewed as radical, has become commonplace and is employed frequently on reality television programs such as the “Real Housewives” brand.

A major breakthrough on the quest to reinvent the documentary came when Time-Life financed the development by Mr. Pennebaker and his colleagues of the first lightweight cameras with synchronous sound, which freed the camera’s operator to freely move about his subjects.

Mr. Drew’s film, “Primary,” which covered John F. Kennedy’s victory over Minnesota Senator Hubert H. Humphrey in the then crucial Wisconsin Democratic primary in 1960, and on which Mr. Pennebaker served as one of the cameramen, is often cited as the first fully fleshed out example of the cinema vérité style in American film.

Mr. Pennebaker also worked on Mr. Drew’s film, “Crisis,” a highly regarded film that followed the standoff between the Kennedy administration and Governor George Wallace over the integration of the University of Alabama, although he later criticized the way Mr. Drew edited the film for lionizing Kennedy and cited that as one of the reasons he went out on his own.

A man whose personal taste in music tended toward jazz from the ’20s to the ’40s, and who said he was largely unfamiliar with Bob Dylan was soon asked by Albert Grossman, Dylan’s manager, to film the star’s solo acoustic tour of England in 1965.

The film, “Don’t Look Back,” released in 1967, features an opening scene of Dylan making his way through a series of large flash cards with lyrics from “Subterranean Homesick Blues” as the song plays. The film, which intersperses scenes of Dylan on stage with others showing his growingly antagonistic relationship with the press, his dying relationship with Joan Baez, and his efforts to find normalcy among other musicians and friends amid his growing fame, has become a classic.

Bob Dylan and DA Pennebaker on the set of Don’t Look Back. Photo courtesy of Chris Hegedus.

Mr. Pennebaker credited Dylan for allowing him to edit the film as he liked, but things were not as smooth the following year when Mr. Pennebaker followed Dylan to England when he played with an electric band. Dissatisfied with Mr. Pennebaker’s editing, Dylan, despite not having any experience with filmmaking, re-edited the movie himself, with the result that the finished version was rejected by ABC Television, which had commissioned it. It was later released as “Eat the Document.”

In 1968, Mr. Pennebaker released “Monterey Pop,” which covered the Monterey Pop Festival of 1967, and included a breakthrough performance by Janis Joplin, scenes of The Who smashing their equipment after their set, and the famous footage of Jimi Hendrix lighting his guitar on fire as he kneels beside it as if in prayer. On its 50th anniversary, “Monterey Pop” was added to the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for its historic and cultural significance.

Although many of his films focused on music and entertainment, including “Original Cast Album: Company,” “Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars,” and “John Lennon & the Plastic Ono Band —Live in Toronto ’69,” and “Depeche Mode 101,” Mr. Pennebaker also turned his lens on political subjects.

The best known is “The War Room,” in which Mr. Pennebaker, now working with Ms. Hegedus, sought to cover the campaign of Bill Clinton, then believed to be a long shot to win the presidency. But in the 30 years since “Primary” and “Crisis” had been made, they learned that it was much more difficult to get access to politicians. Instead, they focused on the unlikely team of George Stephanopolos and James Carville, two of the campaign’s chief advisors.

“The War Room” was nominated for an Oscar in 1994. Mr. Pennebaker received an Oscar for lifetime achievement in 2012.

Locally, Mr. Pennebaker and Ms. Hegedus were named honorary members of the Sag Harbor Cinema Center’s board of directors, and when asked to pick a film for screening to benefit the project, he chose “Town Bloody Hall,” a film that featured the author Norman Mailer in a rowdy debate with Germaine Greer and other feminists during a panel at Town Hall in 1971. The film sat unfinished for eight years until Ms. Hegedus edited it for release in 1979. Mr. Pennebaker chose it for the screening, according to Giulia D’Agnolo Vallan, the center’s artistic director, because he thought it was relevant to today’s times and the “Me Too” movement.

Chris Hegedus and DA Pennebaker at the relighting of the Sag Harbor Cinema. Photo courtesy of Chris Hegedus.

“It’s hard to talk about Penny. He was a great friend of the cinema, a gigantic presence in the community and enormous worldwide,” she said. “His curiosity was always inspiring and relentless.”

“He was one of the most wry, smartest, and engaging people I’ve ever met,” added April Gornik, the president of the center’s board of directors. “His films were as important as any I can think of for my generation and we were extremely honored to have had him on our board.”

A longtime resident of Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Mr. Pennebaker began to visit Sag Harbor, when it was a rundown factory town and artist’s haven in 1960. “His friend John Sherry enticed him to come out,” said a daughter, Linley Pennebaker. “He said, “It’s a great place. You gotta come here.’”

Mr. Pennebaker and his first wife, the former Sylvia Bell, soon bought a house near the corner of Madison Street and Jermain Avenue and their children became fixtures in the village.

In Sag Harbor, he indulged his passion for sailing and owned two sailboats, The Windward, a catboat, and The Sandpiper, a 40-plus-foot sharpie catch. His sailing career came to an end in the early ’90s, when The Windward was wrecked during a winter storm. Its wooden mast now serves as a flagpole in front of the ship’s store at the Sag Harbor Yacht Yard. He took the loss in stride, according to his wife. “You know what they say,” Ms. Hegedus said. “The two happiest days in a boat owner’s life is the day you get your boat and the day you lose it.”

Frazer Pennebaker said his father loved good food and cooking. He also had a fondness for hard apple cider and would buy bottles of unpasteurized cider and store them to ferment. Unfortunately, his timing was often off, and the household would be disturbed by the sound of popping corks, while his father dashed around with a large yellow bowl in a usually fruitless effort to collect the cider from spraying all over the kitchen, he said.

Another daughter, Jane Pennebaker, said her father kept a collection of at least 1,000 78s in alphabetical order in his New York home. “I don’t think many people knew just how important music was to Dad,” she said. “We tried to put them in almost every film,” Ms. Hegedus added.

Donn Alan Pennebaker was born on July 15, 1925, in Evanston, Illinois, to John Paul Pennebaker and the former Lucille Levick. His father was a commercial photographer, who specialized in double exposures and other pre-Photoshop tricks to alter his images.

In addition to his wife and daughters Linley and Jane, son Frazer, he is survived by five other children, Stacy, Jojo, Chelsea, Zoe, and Kit; 13 grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

His first marriage and his second marriage, to Kate Taylor, ended in divorce.

Mr. Pennebaker’s ashes will be buried at Oakland Cemetery in Sag Harbor, near the graves of his longtime friends, John Sherry and William Gaddis. A memorial service will be held in the fall.