D.A. Pennebaker, 1925-2019

D.A. Pennebaker, pioneer of American cinema verite and chronicler of 1960s counterculture, died this past weekend at the age of 94.

Photo by David Shankbone via Wikimedia Commons

Documentary filmmaking was not Pennebaker’s first career, but his formative experiences and skills uniquely prepared him to spearhead a new type of documentary filmmaking. As a young man, he studied engineering at Yale University, and then went on to found Electronics Engineering, where he helped create the first computerized airline reservation system. It was only after selling the company that he turned to filmmaking, and he directed his first film, Daybreak Express, in 1953. Afterwards, he joined a filmmaking co-op and directed documentary shorts for a wide variety of clients, most notably news magazine programs. During this time, he and collaborator Robert Leacock invented one of the first portable synchronous sound cameras. With this new technology, Pennebaker was able to get up close and personal with the subjects of his documentaries.

Though he made a name for himself with short documentaries, what put Pennebaker on the map was his groundbreaking 1967 film Don’t Look Back. This film followed Bob Dylan on his 1965 British tour, and captured the musician as he transitioned from his acoustic folk routes to electric rock and roll.  It’s considered by many to be the first rock documentary, and the opening sequence the first modern music video.

Pennebaker further cemented his status as counterculture documentarian with Monterey Pop, which chronicled the 1967 Monterey Pop festival. In this film, Pennebaker captured iconic performances from Janis Joplin, Jimmi Hendrix, and the Who.

Pennebaker’s fascination with music didn’t end with the 1960s. Throughout the latter part of the 20th century, Pennebaker created documentaries around or about David Bowie, John Lennon, the Broadway musical Company, and my favorite synth-pop band Depeche Mode.

He received just one Oscar nomination in 1994 for The War Room, a fly-on-the-wall documentary about Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign. Though he didn’t win, Pennebaker became the first documentarian to receive an honorary Oscar. You can check out all of these D.A. Pennebaker titles from the Media Collection

  • Don’t Look Back (DVD 2281)
  • Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (DVD 150)
  • Primary (DVD 13485)
  • The War Room (DVD 1013)
  • Dance Black America (DVD 6024)
  • Timothy Leary’s Wedding: You’re Nobody til Somebody Loves You (Streaming)
  • Town Bloody Hall (Streaming)
  • Monterey Pop (Streaming)
Posted in Obituaries.