D.A. Pennebaker was an observer: of subway trains, rock concerts, presidential campaigns, Broadway soundtrack recordings. He built his own portable camera, and with it, showed us worlds and moments in time, uninterrupted. In 2012, Pennebaker became the first documentarian to receive an Honorary Oscar. The recognition went to the filmmaker “who redefined the language of film and taught a generation of filmmakers to look to reality for inspiration.” His fly-on-the-wall approach transformed the way documentaries were made. In celebration of the Criterion Collection 4K Blu-ray release of Original Cast Album: “Company,” Pennebaker’s film on the album recording of Stephen Sondheim’s musical, we revisit some foundational works from this cinematic master. In his 94 years, he made 60 films, though, so we’re just scratching the surface.
Daybreak Express was D.A. Pennebaker’s first documentary—and one that’s not to be looked over. Clocking in at a mere five minutes, it offers up a view of New York City from a subway train, most notably the Third Avenue elevated subway stop that is no longer. And it’s set to the music of Duke Ellington. Dawn turns to day and, though this piece is wordless and chaotic, it’s also singular in its perspective: that of an observer who set out to document life as he saw it.
Before breaking out on his own as a key figure in modern documentary filmmaking, Pennebaker teamed up with other documentarians, including Robert Drew, Richard Leacock, Albert Maysles and Terence Macartney-Filgate, to create a series of films for the likes of ABC News and Time-Life. The first was Primary, which follows John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey as they vie for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1960, through the lens of the Wisconsin primary. The filmmakers’ goal was simple: to favor action over narration, to let the story tell itself—without interviews. In doing so, they championed what’s known as “direct cinema” or “cinéma vérité.” It’s a style Pennebaker would continue to adopt and make his own over dozens of documentaries to come.
In 1965, Pennebaker tagged along on Bob Dylan’s U.K. tour and gave us the ultimate behind-the-scenes portrait of an artist. The film chronicles Dylan on and off stage just as he was entering the mainstream. “I was interested in real people and why they did things, or how they did things. And the only way to find that out was to follow them,” Pennebaker said. With that approach, Don’t Look Back forever changed the music documentary. Forty years later, in 2007, Pennebaker released 65 Revisited, complete with musical performances that didn’t make the original cut.
It isn’t hyperbole to say that Pennebaker essentially invented the concert film—in fact, Monterey Pop was released before Woodstock, even if the latter has since overshadowed it. The film documents the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, which featured performances by Jimi Hendrix, the Who and Janis Joplin. This time, Pennebaker worked with five additional camerapersons, all using homemade portable sync cameras. Thanks to Pennebaker’s observant eye, Hendrix burning his guitar is forever captured on film. Of documenting musicians, Pennebaker said, “When they’re on the stage singing, and it doesn’t have to be a huge concert crowd, they like it. They’re really taking it in. That’s such an amazing display of almost religious belief. I love filming that because there’s nothing else you can film with them that would be as telling.”
The War Room, which Pennebaker filmed with his wife, Chris Hegedus, takes a look inside Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign. The duo managed to capture 35 hours of footage inside the campaign center in Little Rock, Arkansas (otherwise known as the War Room), focusing mostly on the efforts of campaign operatives George Stephanopoulos and James Carville. It’s a portrait of a presidential campaign in the modern age, complete with chaos and grit. It even garnered a response from Clinton himself, albeit a simple one. He wrote to Pennebaker, “Good movie – Bill.”