By Despina Williams Parker
Legendary documentary filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker stood to deliver a talk in Lecture Center 100 on the evening of Oct. 29, following a video retrospective of career milestones such as Don’t Look Back, Crisis and The War Room.
He’d not prepared any comments or seemed to have given much thought to what he might tell the assemblage of digital media faculty, aspiring young filmmakers and fans of his acclaimed documentaries. Pennebaker turned to Lecturer Thomas Cznarty, who delivered his introduction, and asked what, exactly, he was supposed to say.
Later, Pennebaker would call the meticulous planning and scripting of ideas a “yellow pad process,” one that he has never embraced in his art or life.
“I never plan anything, because it would be like planning a love affair,” Pennebaker said. “What would you plan? Everything is a new and wonderful thing that attracts you and comes to you. The idea of planning it negates the whole idea.”
In a fascinating lecture about technology, the power of chance and working without a script, Pennebaker said he was drawn to documentary filmmaking as an art form because it most faithfully realizes the camera’s true potential as an instrument of discovery.
“You tend to go into it to see what will happen, not necessarily to create legends,” Pennebaker said. “You want to use your camera as a way of finding out something that interests you, and as long as it interests you, you keep going.”
His interest in musicians, which Pennebaker attributed to his boyhood in Chicago – a city “bursting with music” – led him to film some of the most iconic performers of the 60s and 70s.
Pennebaker’s seminal film, Don’t Look Back (1967), which documents Bob Dylan’s last acoustic tour, came about by chance, when Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman invited him to film the artist in England.
Such fortuitous events are a hallmark of Pennebaker’s career, which spans six decades. Pennebaker never searched for cultural icons; they came to him.
“They just barge right into our lives,” he said.
Before filming Don’t Look Back, Pennebaker had only heard one Dylan song on the radio and read an unflattering Time magazine profile, which called him a mediocre folk artist.
Pennebaker said he had not set out to make a music film, but a documentary “about a person who might be a poet.” Dylan’s signature turns of phrase captivated Pennebaker, who said the singer was “able to say things in a kind of condensed way, which great poets do.”
In filming Dylan, Pennebaker said he knew that the singer “was going to spend his life trying to figure out who or what he is, and he’s going to do that through his music.”
Pennebaker’s next film, Monterey Pop, a recording of the 1967 Monterey International Pop Festival, captured iconic performances by emerging rock legends Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix.
In the early 1960s, Pennebaker and colleague Richard Leacock developed a portable camera and synchronized sound recording system that gave unprecedented access to musicians on stage, and revolutionized concert filmmaking.
Pennebaker said he arrived at the festival with five volunteer cameramen shooting with the “homemade cameras” that he worried would malfunction at any moment. Though he would not see the footage until he returned to New York, Pennebaker realized that he was witnessing musical history.
Pennebaker recalled making the decision to send two of his least experienced cameramen to film Indian sitarist Ravi Shankar, after rationalizing that “no one here listens to Indian music.” Shankar’s performance would wow concert goers and become one of the film’s highlights.
“When I see the film it amazes me,” Pennebaker said. “You watch two guys learn how to be filmmakers in front of your eyes.”
In his concert films, Pennebaker had a knack for being at the right place at the right time.
In 1973, RCA Records commissioned Pennebaker to shoot promotional footage of David Bowie performing as the androgynous alien rock star, Ziggy Stardust. During the concert, Bowie made the announcement that it would be his last performance as the Ziggy Stardust character – which shocked the band as well as the audience.
“Everything about it was a surprise, but the biggest surprise was when he sang, the whole audience would do back-up,” Pennebaker recalled. “It was such an amazing sound. It was like hearing gospel; it had a religious quality to it.”
Pennebaker knew that he had captured something special, and spent the next month working with Bowie to mix the tracks.
“He was terrific. He wanted that film to be good,” Pennebaker said. The film, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, was released in 1973.
Beyond his classic concert films, Pennebaker provided an insider’s look into Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign in the Oscar-nominated The War Room (1994) and most recently, profiled dueling chefs competing in a prestigious French pastry competition in the documentary Kings of Pastry (2009). He co-directed both films with his wife and longtime collaborator, Chris Hegedus.
Much like most of the great films of Pennebaker’s career, Hegedus came knocking at his door. Hegedus arrived at Pennebaker’s studio 45 years ago at a time when Pennebaker was on the edge of bankruptcy. The synch-sound, cinéma vérité style Pennebaker had made famous interested her, and Pennebaker knew he’d found much more than a professional collaborator.
“I knew right away when she came in that she understood everything I was trying to do. I knew that we’d be partners in a real sense,” he said.
In meeting Hegedus, Pennebaker said he became “religious overnight.”
“I thought, ‘Someone is watching over me,’” he recalled.
Pennebaker’s life is a testament to his ability to recognize a good thing when he sees it, and to make art out of all the happy accidents along the way.
To the young filmmakers in the audience, he offered a parting wish: “That you have as good a time doing it as I did.”