Donn Abe Pennebaker died last Thursday. So we have lost another of the outstanding film-makers whose work, particularly in the 1960s, both changed and defined cinema. His series of documentaries were both acclaimed and widely influential. The US Library of Congress selected several of his films for the National Register and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded him a Lifetime Achievement Oscar in 2913.
The first film with which he was associated that I saw was Primary (1960), made together with Robert Drew and Richard Leacock. This was a chronicle of a contest for the Democratic nomination for Presidential candidate between Hubert Humphrey and John F. Kennedy. There was intense interest in Britain, partly because of the importance of the USA, but also because Kennedy was seemingly a radical candidate for change. The film imbued the coverage of a Primary context with a freshness and élan that stood out. Years later I remember Richard Leacock describing a sequence of a haircut at the Barbers: possibly inconsequential but completely engaging. This was a pioneer work in what became ‘Direct Cinema’. And Pennebaker was a key contributor in developing the lightweight camera and sound equipment that made immediate and often hand-held camera and sound possible.
In 1967 came Dont Look Back, combining observational cinema with the then young but musically charismatic Bob Dylan. The tour was famous for several reasons, including ‘treachery’. But the film bought a breath of life into the music documentary. Pennebaker later in life called his films ‘moments of record’ and this partly described the film. It was also equally applicable to the 1968 Monterey Pop. This, a record of a popular music festival with key stars of the period, was filmed by a crew of cameramen under Pennebaker’s direction. It stills stand out in what is now a crowded field. Its influence, like the Dylan film, is to be widely seen. Among those who have followed in the footsteps of the first is Martin Scorsese. One obituary remarked that the famous opening sequence of Dont Look Back, with Bob Dylan singing and presenting [not always in sync] his lyrics, was a pioneer of music videos. Very few of the latter have the panache of the Pennebaker original.
It was only in later years that I finally saw Daybreak Express (1953), presenting a New York elevated subway station with dazzling music from Duke Ellington. Pennebaker had a particular skill in working with popular music artists, which included Janis Joplin, John Lennon, The Who and David Bowie.
He also worked with Jean-Luc Godard, possibly still the most important film-maker in Western Cinema. However, Godard not being the easiest of collaborators no joint work appeared.
Pennebaker continued to film important aspect of political and cultural life. The 1979 Town Bloody Hall set in New York bought together a panel of feminists with the writer Norman Mailer. He had distinctive views on women’s liberation with some of the problematic male values. The debate is fascinating and offered illumination on the wider US political culture, a discourse that is sometimes seems baffling in Britain.
The 1993 War Room, filmed with Chris Hegedus, returned to political campaigning and that of the future US President Bill Clinton. Like the earlier Primary this both offered a portrait of lesser known aspects of Presidential campaigns and offered revealing portraits of the team aiming for the White House.
Pennebaker made some 40 odd films, all in some sense documentaries. They were not always easy to see in a Britain with a very limited distribution world. Presumably now, with the new emphasis on documentary, they would appear more regularly. They would certainly provide object lessons in how to present observational cinema in both an intelligent and absorbing manner. Many are studies of popular music and it culture. But there are the political studies and portraits of other aspects of US Culture. He was one of the key chroniclers of the four decades of the USA at the end of the C20th. Some of the TV channels are already revisiting his classic films. Let us home that some of these will also appear in cinemas in Britain.