One of the most influential documentary filmmakers of all time, D.A. Pennebaker revolutionized both filmmaking and the rock-n-roll world with his seminal film, "Dont Look Back" (1967), starring Bob Dylan. Using experimental film techniques, Pennebaker was instrumental in changing the way documentary films were made by using handheld cameras and lighter sound equipment in order to introduce more intimacy with the film's subjects. With "Dont Look Back," which followed Dylan on his 1965 tour of England, he broke new ground with his famed "Subterranean Homesick Blues" sequence, widely considered to rock's first music video. Pennebaker followed with the equally influential "Monterey Pop" (1968), a documentary on the famous Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, featuring Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane and The Who that also contained one of rock's most iconic images - that of Jimi Hendrix setting his guitar on fire. Though he faltered both creatively and financially in the 1970s and 1980s, Pennebaker returned triumphant with "The War Room" (1993), an Oscar-nominated look at Bill Clinton's successful 1992 bid for president as seen from the prospective of campaign gurus James Carville and George Stephanopoulos. With other notable documentaries, "Startup.com" (2001) and "Kings of Pastry" (2009), Pennebaker cemented his status as a pioneering documentarian who almost singlehandedly constructed a style of storytelling that influenced a generation of filmmakers.
Born Don Alan Pennebaker on July 25, 1925 in Evanston, IL, Pennebaker was raised by his father, John, a commercial photographer, and his mother, Lucille; his parents divorced when he was young and his father retained custody of him. While attending Yale University during World War II, he was called into military service and became an engineer in the Navy Air Corp. Pennebaker returned to Yale and graduated in 1947, after which he moved to New York City and worked in advertising as a copy writer. From there, he returned to engineering and founded Electronics Engineering, which developed the first computerized airline reservation system. But after meeting experimental filmmaker Francis Thompson, Pennebaker was inspired to direct movies and sold his company. He made his first film, "Daybreak Express" (1953), a five-minute documentary that showcased the soon-to-be-demolished Third Avenue elevated subway in New York set to music by Duke Ellington. Though only his first film, "Daybreak" firmly established Pennebaker's gift for blending experimental techniques to documentary subjects.
Following "Daybreak Express," Pennebaker went to work making industrial films and later established himself as a member of Drew Associates, which included major documentarians Richard Leacock, Albert Maysles, and Robert Drew. Hired to make documentaries for "Living Camera" (syndicated, 1959-64), a TV series produced by Time-Life, these Filmakers - a name they gave their equipment-sharing film co-op - collaborated on 10 documentaries which chronicled a crucial day, week, or month in the lives of both famous and unknown subjects. The documentary collective's most memorable work was "Primary" (1960), a landmark political documentary that focused on the 1960 Democratic primaries between candidates John Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey in Wisconsin. Produced by Drew, shot by Leacock and Maysles, and edited by Pennebaker, "Primary" was a huge breakthrough in documentary filmmaking because of their use of mobile cameras and lighter sound equipment, which allowed for greater intimacy and revolutionized the way documentaries were made. They went on to make "Adventures on the New Frontier" (1961), which was shot in the White House during the early weeks of the Kennedy Administration, and "Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment" (1963), a controversial chronicle of JFK and Attorney General Robert Kennedy's successful conflict with Alabama governor George Wallace over school desegregation.
In 1962, the Filmakers made "The Chair" (1964), a powerful story of a condemned man and his lawyer's feverish attempts to have his death sentence commuted. Perhaps due to its subject matter, the film was not broadcast in the U.S. until 1964, due to lack of network sponsorship. The following year, both Pennebaker and Leacock left Drew Associates and formed Leacock-Pennebaker, Inc. Though partners, the two documentarians mostly worked apart. Pennebaker directed a short film entitled "Timothy Leary's Wedding Day/You're Nobody Till Somebody Loves You" (1964) and "Elizabeth and Mary" (1965), a deeply moving account of twin 10-year-old sisters, one of whom was blind and mentally handicapped. Meanwhile, Pennebaker broke the documentary mold wide open with his most famous film, "Don't Look Back" (1967), which documented Bob Dylan's first tour of England in 1965. A groundbreaking movie that revolutionized both filmmaking and the world of rock-n-roll, and contained other stars like Joan Baez, Marianne Faithfull and Allen Ginsberg, "Dont Look Back" featured, as its centerpiece, the iconic "Subterranean Homesick Blues" sequence, where Dylan stood in an alley showing cue cards with words accompanying the song and which has since been cited as the first rock video.
From there, Pennebaker directed another iconic rock-n-roll film, "Monterey Pop" (1968), which documented 1967's Monterey Pop Festival, a major music event that was a precursor to Woodstock two years earlier. Featuring performances from rock legends like Janis Joplin, The Who, Jefferson Airplane, and Otis Redding, "Monterey Pop" was an unforgettably influential film and contained one of rock's most iconic images - that of Jimi Hendrix setting his guitar on fire following his performance of The Troggs' "Wild Thing." Continuing to focus on rock's most legendary performers, Pennebaker made "Alice Cooper" (1970), "Sweet Toronto" (1971), which showcased a festival performance by John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band, and "Ziggy Stardust and the Spider from Mars" (1973), which featured David Bowie declaring on stage that it was the last show he would ever do. While many took that to mean he was retiring from music, Bowie actually just dropped his Ziggy Stardust persona and took a small break. Meanwhile, Pennebaker faded from prominence rather quickly in the 1970s, seeing his company falter after a disastrous foray into foreign film distribution which forced him to work on other people's projects to pay off debts.
In 1976, Pennebaker met experimental filmmaker-turned-documentarian Chris Hegedus, who became his editor on "Town Bloody Hall" (1979) and "DeLorean" (1981), and later his wife in 1982. After films like "Dance Black America" (1985) and "Jimi Plays Monterey" (1986), he followed Depeche Mode on the final leg of their Music for the Masses Tour, culminating in the live documentary "101" (1989), the title of which drew upon the number of shows on said tour. Returning to politics, Pennebaker made a triumphant comeback with "The War Room" (1993), a fascinating political documentary set during the last months of the 1992 presidential campaign. Hailed as a return to form, the film focused on the masterminds of Arkansas governor Bill Clinton's successful presidential bid, lead strategist James Carville and communications director George Stephanopoulos. Starting with the 1992 primaries and ending with election night, "The War Room" delivered an intimate look at the frustrations and triumphs of a national campaign and earned Pennebaker an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary Feature. Following "Victoria Williams - Happy Come Home" (1997), he delivered a warts-and-all look at the out-of-town tryout of a Broadway stage comedy featuring Carol Burnett and Philip Bosco in "Moon Over Broadway" (1998).
Alongside Hegedus, Pennebaker continued producing a large slate of documentary films like "Down from the Mountain" (2001), which showcased country music stars like T-Bone Burnett, Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch and others in a benefit for the Country Music Hall of Fame Museum in 2000. That same year, he made "Startup.com" (2001), which used digital video to document the rise and fall of e-commerce website govWorks during the dotcom boom-and-bust in 1999-2000. From there, Pennebaker made "Elaine Stritch: At Liberty" (2004), which documented the comedienne's Broadway show of the same name; "Al Franken: God Spoke" (2006), which served as a showcase for Al Franken's political commentary, particularly in regards to Fox News anchor Bill O'Reilly and President George W. Bush; and "Kings of Pastry" (2009), which followed a group of French pastry chefs vying for the prestigious Meilleur Ouvrier de France award. Meanwhile, in late 2012, Pennebaker was given an honorary Oscar at the Governors Awards in recognition of his career of influential filmmaking. Pennebaker received his award alongside other recipients that included stunt performer Hal Needham, AFI founder George Stevens, Jr., and executive Jeffrey Katzenberg.
By Shawn Dwyer
Director (Feature Film)
Cast (Feature Film)
Cinematography (Feature Film)
Writer (Feature Film)
Producer (Feature Film)
Editing (Feature Film)
Misc. Crew (Feature Film)
Misc. Crew (Special)
Moved to New York City after graduating from Yale
Made first film, "Daybreak Express", a five-minute portrait of NYC's now defunct Third Avenue elevated subway set to Duke Ellington's music
Joined Richard Leacock and others in Filmakers, an equipment-sharing film co-operative
Joined Robert Drew's Drew Associates for "Living Camera", the TV documentary series produced by Time-Life
Co-directed (with Richard Leacock, Albert Maysles, Robert Drew, and Terence Macartney-Filgate) the landmark political documentary, "Primary", about the 1960 Democratic primary contest between candidates John Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey in Wisconsin
Collaborated on "Crisis", a chronicle of Robert Kennedy's successful battle with Alabama governor George Wallace over school desegregation
Left Drew Associates and formed Leacock-Pennebaker, Inc. with Richard Leacock
Produced, shot and directed the landmark feature-length pop artist portrait, "Don't Look Back", about Bob Dylan's 1965 English tour; the film's cardboard-sign sequence for Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues" is often cited as the first rock video
Co-directed (with James Desmond, Barry Feinstein, Albert Maysles, Roger Murphy, Richard Leacock and Nick Proferes) the first major rock concert film, "Monterey Pop"
With Leacock, directed "Original Cast Album: Company", a look at the grueling 15-hour marathon recording session of the landmark Stephen Sondheim stage musical
Shot the strange concert film "Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars" featuring David Bowie in his alternative persona
First collaboration with editor, producer, and future wife Chris Hegedus on "Town Bloody Hall", a record of a 1971 debate between Norman Mailer and a group of feminist writers
With Hegedus, directed "Elliott Carter", a profile of the influential modern composer
Profiled rock star Jimi Hendrix in "Jimi Plays Monterey"; not released theatrically until 1989
Made "Depeche Mode 101", a nonfiction look at the British rock band's US tour
Co-directed "Branford Marsalis: The Music Tells You", a look at the influential jazz musician
Garnered critical praise for "The War Room", a behind-the-scenes look at the 1992 US Presidential campaign of Bill Clinton
Undertook a look at the making of a stage play by following the out-of-town tryout of the comedy "Moon Over Buffalo" in the documentary "Moon Over Broadway"
Served as a producer on "Startup.com", co-directed by Chris Hegedus