The history of documentary film-making would look very different without DA Pennebaker, who has died aged 94. Though best known for his revelatory film Dont Look Back, about Bob Dylan’s 1965 UK tour, Pennebaker made bold and idiosyncratic films across a broad range of subject matter, from White House politics, showbusiness and the car-maker John DeLorean to global energy supplies and a competition among elite French pastry chefs. He was also a pioneer of portable cameras that could record sound synchronised with images, a technical leap that revolutionised documentary-making and inspired the “direct cinema” movement of the late 1950s.
Dont Look Back stands as one of the most memorable and influential films of its era, as both a musical and social document. “Dylan suddenly turned pop music upside down,” Pennebaker said. “He did it in a funny, naive way but he did it by making up a whole new kind of music. He was an existentialist model and nobody could figure out where to stick him.” In 2007 Pennebaker released 65 Revisited, which included full-length musical performances absent from the original Dont Look Back.
“It requires a certain amount of luck and you assume it will happen,” Pennebaker said of his approach to film-making. “It’s like playing blackjack in Vegas – you assume you’ll be lucky or you wouldn’t do it at all.” But Pennebaker’s “luck” was rooted in technical expertise and a gift for patient observation.
Donn Alan Pennebaker was born in Evanston, Illinois, the only child of John Paul Pennebaker, a commercial photographer, and his wife, Lucille (nee Levick). Soon after he was born his parents divorced, after which Donn lived in Chicago with his father. He went to Yale University, but his studies were interrupted by the second world war, during which he served as an engineer in the naval air corps.
He graduated from Yale in 1947 with a degree in mechanical engineering, and started Electronics Engineering, a company which exploited then-primitive computer science to create a pioneering airline reservation system. He sold the company, proposing to try his hand as a writer and painter, but a friendship with the film-maker Francis Thompson spurred him to make Daybreak Express (1953), a dynamic vision of New York shot from an elevated subway train, with a Duke Ellington soundtrack.
In the late 1950s, Pennebaker formed the production company Drew Associates with the director Richard Leacock and the former Life magazine editor Robert Drew. The company made films for a variety of outlets, notably the ABC News series Close-up and Time-Life Broadcasting’s Living Camera. Their first major effort was Primary (1960), for which Pennebaker and his partners filmed five days of campaigning for the 1960 Democratic presidential primary which led to the nomination of John F Kennedy. Pennebaker had developed a portable 16mm camera with synchronised sound recorded on a Nagra tape recorder, using a Bulova clock movement to guarantee accuracy. Previously, sound would be separately recorded and added to the film later.