Sunday, May 26, 2024

RIP: DA Pennebaker, Legendary, Oscar Winning Documentary Filmmaker of “The War Room,” “Monterey Pop,” “Don’t Look Back,” Was 94


The world is a much sadder place today. My friend and mentor, DA Pennebaker, the great documentary filmmaker, has passed away at age 94. He’s survived by his wife, filmmaker Chris Hegedus, eight children, many grandchildren, and a wide range of friends, students, and fans who loved him.

Penny, as he was known to one and all, died Thursday night at his home is Sag Harbor, Long Island. He was working on his memoir.

It’s hard to know where to begin. I was lucky to be part of Penny’s world since 1999. But 74 years preceded our meeting, and he lived a life of invention, adventure, and genius. His classic films include the Bob Dylan documentary “Dont Look Back,” the historic “Monterey Pop,” and “The War Room,” for which he and Hegedus were nominated for an Academy Award. Penny received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Motion Picture Academy in 2012 (for the 2013 Oscars).

In 2014, Rolling Stone named “Dont Look Back” the number 1 music documentary ever made, and “Monterey Pop” number 7.

His comrades in arms were Albert Maysles and Richard Leacock. With those guys and Bob Drew, Penny was invited into the JFK presidential campaign. They made four landmark films about JFK and Robert Kennedy, as well.  He made dozens more including (with Chris Hegedus) the great Emmy winning film about Elaine Stritch, “At Liberty,” for HBO. A more recent film, “Unlocking the Cage,” was also nominated for an Emmy as well. I got to make a film with him and Chris in 2002 called “Only the Strong Survive,” which went on to Sundance, Cannes and Telluride before being released in 2003.

The credits go on and on. More importantly, right now, was how he lived his life. Penny just celebrated his 94th birthday on July 15th in Sag Harbor surrounded by his large, happy family. The next I spent the day with him, Chris, his partner since 1976 and wife since 1982, and their daughter Jane.  Penny reminisced about how early on he had to invent cameras he could walk around with in order to create Cinema Verite, the fly on the wall film style that now permeates our lives from MTV to almost everything we see today that calls itself “documentary.”

A couple of weeks ago, I saluted Penny on his 94th birthday. Others who write about his films should note he created the music video. It was the segment he shot for “Don’t Look Back” of Bob Dylan throwing down lyric cards for “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” That was it, that the beginning. It may be the most copied, influential music clip of all time.

For the last couple of years, Penny has been working on his autobiography. What interested him most, he told me a couple of weeks ago, was reaching back to his early days. He was born outside of Chicago, in Evanston, Illinois. His parents were probably never married. He said he never saw them in the same room together. He was raised by relatives, then set out for Chicago, where he fell in love with jazz. The music changed his life, and he went on to film as many legends as he possibly could. When we toast him today, Louis Armstrong must be on the turntable. He loved the musicians he filmed, from David Bowie to Depeche Mode to Sam Moore. I remember sitting in Jerry Butler’s dressing room at the Apollo Theater on Mother’s Day in 1999 where Penny impressed the heck of the skeptical singer.

Penny told me that being only child from those circumstances, he set out to have the biggest family possible. So he did: 8 children from three wives. Meeting Chris Hegedus, he told me, changed his life. No Pennebaker family celebration or movie premiere ever had less than a couple dozen in attendance, and that was the tip of the iceberg. Penny loved that, he thrived in it. The result was that his film company, Pennebaker Hegedus Films, is a family affair. His son, Frazer, steers the ship. His sons, John Paul (Jojo), and Kit, are busy making their own films. The company’s Upper West Side townhouse has always been the laid back family living room where everyone comes and goes, ideas are bounced around, decisions are made, great films are produced. (When we were making “Only the Strong Survive” on one floor in 1991, two others were going on– a doc called “Down from the Mountain” which had sprung from the Coen Brothers’ “O Brother Where Art Thou?” and “Start Up,” for which Chris won the DGA Award. Quite a time!)

Penny was the most gentle, good-natured artist, genius, I’ve ever known or could imagine. I was lucky to have known him. So many others who read this will feel the same way. Donn Alan Pennebaker lived an extraordinary life, and took us all for the ride.

There will be a private family ceremony, I am told, but a more public remembrance will be organized in the fall.

Roger Friedman
Roger Friedman
Roger Friedman began his Showbiz411 column in April 2009 after 10 years with Fox News, where he created the Fox411 column. His movie reviews are carried by Rotten Tomatoes, and he is a member of both the movie and TV branches of the Critics Choice Awards. His articles have appeared in dozens of publications over the years including New York Magazine, where he wrote the Intelligencer column in the mid 90s and covered the OJ Simpson trial, and Fox News (when it wasn't so crazy) where he covered Michael Jackson. He is also the writer and co-producer of "Only the Strong Survive," a selection of the Cannes, Sundance, and Telluride Film festivals, directed by DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus.

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