Looking Back At D.A. Pennebaker On Bob Dylan’s 80th Birthday

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D.A. Pennebaker in front of the Paul Stuart store window on Madison Ave featuring Joseph's Baldassare's first Bob Dylan photo exhibition.

Back in the early 1960s, when a young folk singer from Minnesota showed up on the scene in New York City and began performing his songs at clubs in Greenwich Village, there were plenty of critics who didn’t think he’d last.

But on Monday, Bob Dylan, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016 and in December sold his entire catalog of more than 600 songs to Universal Music Publishing Group, turned 80 years old.

And those critics? Well, who knows where they are now.

Someone who did take notice of Dylan’s early career was the late documentary filmmaker and Sag Harbor resident D.A. Pennebaker. In 1965, Penny, as he was known, followed Dylan during his 1965 tour of England — his last as an acoustic artist. Using the cinema verite “fly-on-the-wall” style of shooting for which he became legendary, Mr. Pennebaker followed Dylan, documenting his interactions with eager fans, fellow musicians and philosophical journalists.

Released in 1967, “Dont Look Back,” the handheld, black-and-white 16mm film of Dylan’s tour, was, for all intents and purposes, the very first “rockumentary.” Recently restored in digital 4K and re-released by Criterion Films, Mr. Pennebaker’s documentary will be among the offerings screened on Friday, May 28, at Sag Harbor Cinema as part of its official opening weekend. The screening will be followed by a Q&A with Mr. Pennebaker’s wife and longtime filmmaking partner, Chris Hegedus, and his son, Frazer Pennebaker. Former Saturday Night Live band leader and Bob Dylan collaborator G.E. Smith will perform select songs by the musician.

In conjunction with the screening, the work of Ms. Hegedus and Mr. Pennebaker, who died at his home in Sag Harbor in August 2019 at the age of 94, will also be the focus of a retrospective exhibition on the cinema’s third floor. On view will be an early 16mm camera owned by Mr. Pennebaker, a tape recorder used for location work by Ms. Hegedus, editing equipment and other tools of the trade. The objects are important in the context of documentary history in that they represented a shift to a more portable filmmaking method and the ability to record sync sound on location (a breakthrough pioneered by Mr. Pennebaker and fellow filmmakers Robert Drew, Albert Maysles and Richard Leacock), resulting in a less obtrusive shooting style that allows filmmakers to be silent observers of the action.

“The camera that’s on view is one Penny adapted,” Ms. Hegedus explained in a recent interview. “A lot of them were used during WWII without sound and Penny and his fellow Drew Associates filmmakers adapted it to sync sound.

“It’s pretty clunky. Every 10 minutes you had to change the film,” she added. “The camera had an early lithium battery and he had a cord attached to a battery belt.”

In addition to the equipment on loan from Pennebaker Hegedus Films, also on view will be framed prints of still images from “Dont Look Back,” part of an exhibition produced and organized by Joseph Baldassare. Mr. Baldassare, who was a member of the band Hot Tuna, is the proprietor of Arthouse 18, a photographic print studio, and owner of a Bleecker Street shop in Manhattan that sells signed books, prints, vintage vinyl and other objects.

“I come from the record industry, I’ve done motion pictures as an actor and wrote TV and radio commercials,” Mr. Baldassare said in a recent interview. “I love Pennebaker’s work, and I realized because of the date they had filmed ‘Dont Look Back,’ there was probably no still photographer on set.”

One day in 2014 when Mr. Baldassare ran into Frazer Pennebaker and learned that Criterion Films was putting together a box set of “Dont Look Back,” he suggested creating a print exhibition by extracting single frame negatives from the original film reel.

“I said, ‘I’ll go through the film and isolate your film negatives, with the help of Criterion,” recalled Mr. Baldassare, who received approval from Mr. Dylan and Mr. Pennebaker to create the prints, which Mr. Pennebaker signed at his home in Sag Harbor.

Since 2015, the “Dont Look Back” photographic exhibition has been displayed on both coasts and in several states in between, and in summer 2017, was exhibited in Tulsa, Oklahoma, to celebrate the Kaiser Family Foundation’s purchase of Bob Dylan’s archive, which is to be housed in Tulsa.

Because Mr. Pennebaker and Ms. Hegedus have such a strong and deep connection to Sag Harbor, there has long been a desire to show the images at the Sag Harbor Cinema. With the cinema poised to officially reopen this weekend after a December 2016 fire and massive rebuilding effort, that’s finally happening.

“Penny’s spirit is always with us, as well as with so many filmmakers,” said Ms. Hegedus. “He was so encouraging to young filmmakers and lives on in so many people.

“I’ve made a lot of films without Penny, but he’s always there,” she added. “The concept we always believed in, following the drama in real life, is something I’ve kept with me in all the films I’ve done.”

“Don’t Look Back” will be screened at 7 p.m. on Friday, May 28, at the Sag Harbor Cinema, 90 Main Street, Sag Harbor. A Q&A follows with Chris Hegedus and Frazer Pennebaker, with a special performance by G.E. Smith. For information, visit sagharborcinema.org.

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