In his 78 years, Donn Pennebaker has made films about politicians, Samuel Beckett and car maker John DeLorean, but he'll always be most readily identified with Don't Look Back, his film of Bob Dylan's British tour in 1965. He can remember the day 30-odd years ago when he hosted a screening of it for Dylan and The Beatles. "It was in this very hotel," Pennebaker explains, gesturing around the lobby of what is now the Radisson Mayfair. "There's a theatre downstairs, and they all sat there and dutifully watched the film. Afterwards George Harrison came up and said 'what you've got there is really interesting, I'd like to know how you did it', and as far as I know this was the first time he got interested in films."
Pennebaker was in London recently with his wife and film-making partner Chris Hegedus to talk about the DVD release of their 1988 documentary Depeche Mode 101, but he also made time to attend a screening of Concert For George, filmed at the George Harrison memorial concert at the Albert Hall last year. Afterwards, he found himself talking to Harrison's widow, Olivia.
"She was telling me that after George saw Don't Look Back he got a camera and towards the end of his life he was filming every day, documentary material about the family, saying 'this is what you'll have when I die'. He was treating it as a kind of history of his life. I had no idea that he'd memorised whole sections of Don't Look Back. To suddenly find that out years later is the kind of wonderful feedback you get from making documentaries."
New developments in lightweight digital equipment have allowed the word "documentary" to be attached to everything from Chris Morris satires to spurious "reality TV", and there's a danger that the true value of the medium is being dissipated. But when Pennebaker first started dabbling in it during the late Fifties, its potential had barely been grasped. His background was in engineering, and when he joined the collaborative film-making venture Drew Associates in 1959, with colleagues Richard Leacock, Shirley Clarke and Albert Maysles, he turned his technical skills towards developing a revolutionary 16mm portable camera with synchronised sound, using a Bulova clock movement to ensure accuracy. It was a fundamental step in freeing film-makers from the studio and letting them pursue their subjects wherever the story led.
"There was nobody else working on a camera that you could haul around with you outside and get sync dialogue," he points out. "We could see that the most important things were dialogue and quietness, so you could hear what people were saying. At the time, the kind of documentary films being made were all covered with kind of hymn-like music and everything was virtuous. The idea was to use the documentary concept as evidence of how well your government was treating you. It's called propaganda in many places."
Pennebaker's music films, which include 1968's Monterey Pop, Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars and 2000's Down From The Mountain, amount to an impressive body of work in themselves, but they're only one dimension of his career. Hegedus vividly remembers the impact of 1963's Crisis: Behind A Presidential Commitment, a Drew Associates production examining the stand-off between John Kennedy's White House and Alabama's segregationist governor, George Wallace. "It was an unprecedented look inside the White House that you'll never see again," she says. "For me, it was their most influential film."
Pennebaker and Hegedus teamed up for The Energy War in 1979, a five-hour series for public television about President Carter's struggle to deregulate natural gas, and made an absorbing study of Bill Clinton's campaign strategy in The War Room (1993). The latter, they reckon, inspired George Clooney and Stephen Soderbergh's new political drama for HBO, K Street.
But back in the Sixties, the idea of Washington politics being turned into upmarket soap opera would have seemed as implausible as scruffy rock musicians still being venerated 40 years later. When Pennebaker was invited by Bob Dylan's manager Albert Grossman to film Dylan (as long as Pennebaker paid for the trip himself), he had no idea that he'd be able to make anything as powerful as Don't Look Back. He was worried that all he'd end up with was footage of press conferences and Dylan turning up at stage doors, but the film proved to be an insightful snapshot of a turbulent historical moment that has increased in resonance as the decades have ticked by.
In 1988, Depeche Mode invited Pennebaker and Hegedus to make 101 because they'd seen Don't Look Back, though the passage of time and evolutions in musical fashion ensured that the same kind of lightning could never strike twice. A legendary aura had settled around Pennebaker by then, and he felt he had the latitude to structure the project on a relatively lavish scale.
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"With the Depeche film we didn't even want to use the word 'documentary'," Pennebaker insists. "We wanted to make a big film. If we'd just done it like 'let's follow this band on tour' and tried to sell it to TV, it probably would have been hard to sell. But if it was perceived as a big movie, then television would buy it." Tipping the scales at just over two hours, with its footage of Depeche Mode counterpointed by the story of a busload of fans following the band across America to a climactic concert at the Rosebowl in California, 101 is indeed big. Possibly even too big. "I thought it should be long, and to this day many people say it's too long," says Pennebaker. "I might be one of them," murmurs Hegedus. But they both agree that Depeche Mode made perfect clients, trusting the film-makers to shoot whatever they wanted and never trying to impose conditions. It's difficult to imagine many major acts following suit in this era of airbrushed image control and kneejerk litigation.
"Often you get the management saying 'you can't do this', and then you have to abandon the film because it's impossible to do it," says Pennebaker. "But we could see Depeche taking all kinds of chances, and it encouraged us to take chances too. The only thing they said was 'you're not going to make us into Spinal Tap, are you?'"
'Depeche Mode 101' is released on DVD (Mute £20) tomorrow
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