DA Pennebaker death: Bob Dylan and David Bowie filmmaker dies, aged 94

Filmmaker often chose to study musicians in his films, once commenting that ‘the very nature of film is musical’

Roisin O'Connor
Sunday 04 August 2019 10:18
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Pennebaker in his New York editing suite in 2000
Pennebaker in his New York editing suite in 2000

DA Pennebaker, the documentary-maker beloved for offering fans an inside look at Bob Dylan’s 1965 tour of England, has died aged 94.

The “master of cinéma vérité” was renowned as a skilled documentarian who captured many historic moments, from Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign (The War Room) to the original cast recording of Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway musical Company.

Pennebaker died of natural causes on Thursday night (1 August) at his home on Long Island, his son Frazer told The Hollywood Reporter. He is survived by his wife, fellow documentarian Chris Hegedus, with whom he worked for more than 30 years.

He was born Donn Alan Pennebaker on 15 July 1925, in the Chicago suburb Evanston. Known as “Penny”, he served in the navy and attended Yale University, graduating with a degree in mechanical engineering.

His first film was a five-minute short titled Daybreak Express (1953), which transformed the run-down trains that ran over the streets of New York, along with the people who travelled on them.

Pennebaker often chose musicians as his subjects, once commenting that the “very nature of film is musical”. Portraits of artists included Duke Ellington, David Bowie, John Lennon, Little Richard, Janis Joplin and Depeche Mode during pivotal moments in their careers, with the Dylan documentary being his most celebrated.

Dont Look Back (Pennebaker left out the apostrophe on purpose), followed Dylan as the musician was making his widely scrutinised transition from an acoustic folk singer to an electric rock act. It was filmed during the artist’s final acoustic tour of England.

Pennebaker told Time magazine in 2007: “He [Dylan] saw it out in Hollywood at a dreadful screening. Afterward, he said, ‘We’ll have another screening and I’ll write down all of the things we have to change.’ Of course, that made me a little gloomy. The next night, we assembled again and he sat in the front with this yellow pad. At the end of the film, he held up the pad and there was nothing on it. He said, ‘That’s it.’”

Oscars recognition: George Stevens Jr, DA Pennebaker, Hal Needham and Jeffrey Katzenberg receive Governors Awards from the Academy in 2012 (Getty)

He was the first documentary-maker to receive a lifetime achievement Oscar in 2012, which he dedicated to his wife at the Governors Awards.

“The person that I have to thank the hardest is the love of my life, Chris,” he began. “She and I have made a lot of films together. When we make films, when shooting them, you’re great friends, because there’s nothing but problems to be solved, so you’re pals … And then you sit down at the editing machine, and it all begins – you get divorced about four times a week.

“But you know it’s a process. Even though you’re practically choking each other to death over each editing decision, there’s nothing in the world I love better than doing that with her.”

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