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D.A. Pennebaker, pioneering documentarian and Bob Dylan mythmaker, dies at 94

D.A. Pennebaker, whose documentary films stretched across more than 60 years and touched on a plethora of charismatic and controversial subjects, none more so than Bob Dylan, died Thursday of natural causes. He was 94.

Dylan was the focal point of Pennebaker’s masterful 1967 cinéma vérité film “Dont Look Back,” a work part fact, part fiction, in which the line separating the two was often as elusive as rock’s poet laureate himself.

7:07 PM, Aug. 03, 2019 A previous version of this article said “Subterranean Homesick Blues” appeared on Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited” album. The song is from “Bringing It All Back Home.”

Pennebaker, described as “the grand old man of fly-on-the-wall filmmaking” by Times film critic Kenneth Turan, chronicled a who’s who of other pop music and entertainment world figures and icons over the course of his long career, including John Lennon, David Bowie, Jane Fonda, Little Richard, Jimi Hendrix, Chuck Berry and the Monterey Pop Festival.

He also earned considerable acclaim, and shared an Academy Award nomination with his wife and frequent collaborator Chris Hegedus, for co-directing “The War Room” (1993), a deep look inside Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign that made media stars out of George Stephanopoulos and James Carville.

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But he was best known for “Dont Look Back,” his black-and-white film capturing Dylan’s 1965 tour of the U.K., as well as for the widely influential and much duplicated short film illustrating Dylan’s song “Subterranean Homesick Blues” that showed Dylan flipping through a series of cards quoting words and phrases from the surrealistic song from his album “Bringing It All Back Home.”

D.A. Pennebaker

D.A. Pennebaker speaks at a Feb. 19 screening of his 1970 documentary "Original Cast Album: Company," about the Stephen Sondheim musical.

(Dave Kotinsky / Getty Images for IFC)

“We were down at the Cedar Tavern [in New York] and he [Dylan] said, ‘I was thinking of making up these cards and holding them up and running them like for a song,’ where the words would be the words for the song,” Pennebaker told Dylan biographer Clinton Heylin. “It would be a takeoff of what the Beatles had to do when they had to play the playback, which was demeaning. They accepted it because they were told you had to do this to sell records…. Dylan wanted to put a little needle into that, by doing it as a gag.”

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Although Dylan originally approved the release of “Dont Look Back,” he had a fitful relationship with the film, arguing it “was one-sided,” while Pennebaker argued that its liberties with fact were mostly at the behest of its star.

“I think in ‘Dont Look Back,’ that Dylan’s enacting his life — as he wishes to enact it,” Pennebaker told Heylin in “Behind the Shades.” “Not necessarily as it is, and not necessarily as he wishes it were, but just as he wants to act it. ‘Dont Look Back’ is a kind of fiction, but it’s Dylan’s fiction, not mine. He makes it up as he goes along.”

“Dont Look Back” helped to both establish and spread Dylan’s mystique and is considered one of the most important films about rock music ever made. Director Martin Scorsese incorporated parts of it into his 2005 examination of Dylan’s music and legacy, “No Direction Home.”

Pennebaker subsequently filmed Dylan’s 1966 tour with the Hawks, the group of mostly Canadian musicians that later came into its own as the Band, for another film, “Eat the Document,” commissioned by ABC. Dylan edited it himself, after recuperating from his near-fatal 1966 motorcycle accident, but ABC rejected it as virtually incomprehensible to viewers. It has rarely been screened in theaters and never released for home video, but it has been widely bootlegged.

Filmmakers Chris Hegedus, left, and D.A. Pennebaker.

Filmmakers Chris Hegedus, left, and D.A. Pennebaker.

(Pennebaker Hegedus Films / HBO / First Run Features )

While the rock music scene was growing exponentially in the ’60s, both commercially and artistically, Pennebaker was tapped to capture the comings and goings at one of the first major rock music festivals, Monterey Pop, held on the California coast in 1967.

Record executive and talent manager Lou Adler, one of the festival’s organizers, dedicated nearly a third of the budget for the whole event to paying Pennebaker to film the performances, many of which turned into career-launching moments for Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Otis Redding and the Who.

But his focus wasn’t restricted to rock music. In 1991 he made “Broadway Breakthrough,” a behind-the-scenes look at the creation of Stephen Sondheim’s musical “Company,” which aired on the Learning Channel as part of “Played in the U.S.A.,” a 13-part series with contributions from a variety of filmmakers examining various strains of American music.

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Pennebaker dedicated his life to the documentary form, up to his last, “Unlocking the Cage,” a 2016 look at a group of U.S. attorneys who were trying to establish legal rights for non-human species including elephants, cetaceans and apes. He was presented with an honorary Oscar at the academy’s Governors Awards ceremony in 2012.

Donn Alan Pennebaker was born July 15, 1925, in Evanston, Ill., attended MIT during the closing years of World War II, worked as an engineer and made his first film in 1953, a documentary tracking a train traveling through New York City and using Duke Ellington’s song “Daybreak Express” as both its soundtrack and its title.

Music was a subject he came back to time and again, in part because he found a strong link between the two art forms.

“The very nature of film is musical,” he once told Stop Smiling magazine, “because it uses time as a basis for its energy. It needs to go from here to there, whereas pictures and paintings are just there. With movies, you’re putting something together that’s not going to be totally comprehensible until the end.”

He was married three times and is survived by Hegedus, his third wife and frequent film collaborator, whom he married in 1982, as well as eight children: Stacy Pennebaker, Frazer Pennebaker (a producer of many Pennebaker documentaries) and Linley Pennebaker, from his first marriage to Sylvia Bell; TV director Jojo Pennebaker, Chelsea Pennebaker and Zoe Pennebaker, from his second marriage to Kate Taylor; and camera operator Kit Pennebaker and Jane Pennebaker, from his marriage to Hegedus.

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