Donn Alan (D.A.) Pennebaker

Born: July 15 1925;

Died: August 1, 2019

Cameras have been used to record everyday life since the dawn of their invention in the early 19th century. But it was not until equipment became lighter and technology more advanced that film-makers were able to marry film with actuality sound that could be recorded “on the move”.

At a stroke, the observational documentary had entered a new error, and D.A. Pennebaker was among its pioneers.

The film-maker, known universally as “Penny”, made ground-breaking and memorable films including Dont Look Back, which followed the international folk star Bob Dylan as he toured Britain, earning the scorn of traditionalists as he introduced the electric guitar to his act, transforming himself as a rock star in the process. The opening of the film, featuring Dylan in a London back-street, flourishing flash-cards bearing the lyrics to Subterranean Homesick Blues

Pennebaker was born in Evanston, Illinois, the son of a photographer. He served in the US Navy during World War II before studying engineering. He founded a company that designed the first electronic airline booking system before turning to film-making in the mid 1950s.

Life Magazine was a leading publication of its day, chronicling American life through the lens of stills photographers. One editor, Robert Drew, dreamt of breaking Life into the burgeoning TV industry. He raised a small fortune from his publishers to develop the equipment that would enable the simultaneous recording of sound. Pennebaker was a leading figure in Drew’s growing band of enthusiasts as they created a whole new genre of documentary making.

Their specially adapted cameras could be shoulder-mounted, thereby doing away with the tripod. The result was a more fluid movement which allowed the film-maker greater freedom when following their subject. The technology enabled the Drew team’s first major enterprise, Primary, an observational film covering John F Kennedy’s 1960 drive to win the Democratic presidential nomination. They followed Kennedy intimately through the crowds at political rallies, and in private moments with his campaign team, over five days in Wisconsin as the young Senator and his glamorous wife Jackie pressed the flesh. Crucially, there were no interviews. The crews simply followed the candidate, minute by minute.

The result was revolutionary. It was a moment when technology delivered an exciting new way to deliver a modern form of journalism. Drew and Pennebaker made several more films until the realisation dawned that commercial television was never going to be interested in their style of film, especially some subject matter such as the civil rights’ battles of the American South or the Cuban missile crisis. TV executives wanted such stories to be told simply, presented by their named star correspondents. “I wanted it to be total theatre but TV was never going to go that way. TV was just going to sell soap, as fast as it could.”

observed Pennebaker. He opted to return to his first love, music, and set out on his own.

The Dylan film remains a classic of observational documentary. The public was unused to such intimate footage of the famous, with Dylan sulking while fans flocked around his limo. He is informal in his hotel room, with friends and a guitar. Then onstage at Manchester, barracked by folk purists infuriated at his band’s electric instruments and their erstwhile hero turned out now in his modern rock star leather jacket and boots.

The film is a fascinating snapshot of Sixties pop culture, and sparked many imitators. Pennebaker himself went on to make the classic festival film, Monterey Pop, featuring classic footage of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin.

In 1973 Pennebaker collaborated with Bowie for the latter’s farewell to his onstage character Ziggy Stardust, centred around a concert at Hammersmith Odeon. Bowie was a major pop star at the time, and the decision to axe Ziggy came as a shock to many fans. Five decades on, Pennebaker’s film still receives regular repeat showings on British TV.

Pennebaker was nearly 40 when he collaborated with Bowie, and his lengthy career followed a firm path through the following decades, with documentaries, such as Delorean, which followed the ill-fated sports car operation in Belfast headed by a former General Motors executive who fell foul of the law.

Pennebaker’s decision to follow the Clinton campaign of 1992 resulted in a remarkable film, The War Room, which rarely featured the candidate at all. Instead, its “star” was campaign manager James Carville, whose memorable slogan “it’s the economy, stupid” helped Clinton overcome the growing mass of alleged scandal that threatened to engulf his candidacy. There are memorable scenes, often aped in fiction since, between Carville and George Stephanopoulos, Clinton’s dogged spokesman, as they grapple with each emerging campaign issue.

He was a flamboyant film-maker. Throughout the Dylan film, Pennebaker wore a full-sized top hat. He was difficult to miss. Yet he had an innate ability to work unobtrusively, merging into the background to such a degree that his subject would forget about his presence. The result in many films was an intimate portrait of his subjects. They spoke freely, shedding the self-consciousness or the sense of having to perform for an ever-present camera.

His greatest collaborator was his wife, Chris Hegedus, a film editor who joined his company during the 1970s. Over the last 20 years their films included Moon Over Broadway, and Kings of Pastry, which followed 16 French chefs as they competed for the prestigious Meilleur Ouvrier de France

In Lyon. Their last film, Unlocking the Cage, presented the case to give animals equal rights to those of humans.

Pennebaker received an honorary Oscar in 2013 for his lifetime body of work in documentary making.

Pennebaker, 94, died at his home in New York state, which he shared with Hegedus. They had a son and daughter, Kit and Jane. He also leaves six children from two previous marriages.