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D.A. Pennebaker

D.A. Pennebaker

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Also Known As: Donn Alan Pennebaker Died:
Born: July 15, 1925 Cause of Death:
Birth Place: Evanston, Illinois, USA Profession: documentarian, editor, producer, director of photography, engineer, advertising copy writer

Biography CLOSE THE FULL BIOGRAPHY

One of the founding fathers of "direct cinema", American filmmaker's adopted name of choice for "cinema verite", and perhaps its best known practitioner during the 1960s and early 70s, Pennebaker helped construct a style of storytelling and an attitude toward his subjects (often political figures or entertainers) that influenced a generation of nonfiction filmmakers. He is a proponent of a cinema which favors the filming reality in as unobtrusive a manner as possible, usually without narration. "You don't necessarily need a script or actors to tell a compelling tale," he has declared. "Finding a person at a key moment in his life and rendering the truth as you see it--that's the truest form of drama."This former engineer, advertising copywriter and painter began making films in the early 50s after falling under the influence of experimental filmmaker Francis Thompson. Pennebaker's first film, "Daybreak Express" (1953), combined his documentary and experimental impulses in a five-minute portrait of the soon-to-be-demolished Third Avenue elevated subway in NYC set to Duke Ellington's music.Pennebaker later established himself as a member of Drew Associates, which included major documentarians Richard...

One of the founding fathers of "direct cinema", American filmmaker's adopted name of choice for "cinema verite", and perhaps its best known practitioner during the 1960s and early 70s, Pennebaker helped construct a style of storytelling and an attitude toward his subjects (often political figures or entertainers) that influenced a generation of nonfiction filmmakers. He is a proponent of a cinema which favors the filming reality in as unobtrusive a manner as possible, usually without narration. "You don't necessarily need a script or actors to tell a compelling tale," he has declared. "Finding a person at a key moment in his life and rendering the truth as you see it--that's the truest form of drama."

This former engineer, advertising copywriter and painter began making films in the early 50s after falling under the influence of experimental filmmaker Francis Thompson. Pennebaker's first film, "Daybreak Express" (1953), combined his documentary and experimental impulses in a five-minute portrait of the soon-to-be-demolished Third Avenue elevated subway in NYC set to Duke Ellington's music.

Pennebaker later established himself as a member of Drew Associates, which included major documentarians Richard Leacock and Albert Maysles. Robert Drew and Leacock were the two major guiding sensibilities of this extraordinary team. Hired to make documentaries for "Living Camera" (Syndicated, 1959-64), a TV series produced by Time-Life, these "filmakers" (as they named their equipment-sharing film co-op) collaborated on ten documentaries which chronicled a crucial day, week, or month in the lives of both famous and unknown subjects. They also produced projects for the ABC News "Closeup" series. Their most memorable work includes "Primary" (1960), a landmark political documentary focused on the 1960 Democratic primary contest between candidates John Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey in Wisconsin; "Adventures on the New Frontier" (1961), shot in the White House during the early weeks of the Kennedy Administration; "The Chair" (the events took place in July 1962 but it was not broadcast in the USA until October 1964 due to lack of network sponsorship), a powerful story of a condemned man and his lawyers' feverish attempts to get his death sentence commuted; and "Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment" (1963), a controversial chronicle of JFK and Attorney General Robert Kennedy's successful conflict with Alabama governor George Wallace over school desegregation.

Pennebaker and Leacock left Drew Associates in 1963 and formed Leacock-Pennebaker, Inc. Though they were partners, the two documentarians worked separately for the most part. Pennebaker went on to direct a short film entitled "Timothy Leary's Wedding Day/You're Nobody Till Somebody Loves You" (1964) and "Elizabeth and Mary" (1965), a deeply moving account of "a day in the life" of a pair of twin ten-year-old sisters, one of whom is blind and mentally handicapped. He became famous with the release of "Don't Look Back" (1967) which documented Bob Dylan's first tour of England in 1965. That film's celebrated "Subterranean Homesick Blues" sequence, with Dylan standing in an alley accompanying his song with cardboard-sign "flash cards," is often cited as the first rock video. (Incidentally, Beat poet Allen Ginsberg does a walk-on cameo.) Pennebaker's "Monterey Pop" (1968), the first major rock concert feature, cemented his reputation as the foremost chronicler of 60s youth culture--particularly through its music. He would often return to the world of show business in subsequent features, shorts, and TV specials including "Original Cast Album: Company" (1970), "Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars" (1973) and "Dance Black America" (1985).

Pennebaker served as the director of photography on three semi-experimental films directed by Norman Mailer, "Beyond the Law" (1968), "Wild 90" (1969) and "Maidstone" (1970). He also completed and edited "One PM" (1971), a film begun by Jean-Luc Godard.

Pennebaker faded from prominence during the 70s. His company faltered after a disastrous foray into foreign film distribution and he had to work on other people's projects to pay off debts. Pennebaker hooked up with experimental filmmaker turned documentarian Chris Hegedus in 1976. She began as his editor, salvaging an abandoned film project depicting a 1971 debate between Norman Mailer and a group of feminist writers to make "Town Bloody Hall" (1979). Hegedus received credits as a co-director, co-writer, and editor. The pair married in 1982 and went on to collaborate on various music-oriented projects throughout the second half of the 80s. Pennebaker made a triumphant comeback with "The War Room" (1993), a fascinating political documentary set during the last months of the 1992 presidential campaign. Hailed as a return to form, the film focused on the masterminds of Arkansas governor Bill Clinton's successful presidential bid--James Carville and George Stephanopoulos. He followed with a warts and all look at the out-of-town tryout of the stage comedy "Moon Over Buffalo" (featuring Carol Burnett and Philip Bosco) in "Moon Over Broadway" (1998).

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Filmographyclose complete filmography

DIRECTOR:

1.
  Jane (2011)
2.
3.
4.
  Only the Strong Survive (2002) Director (Co-Director)
5.
  Moon Over Broadway (1997) Director
6.
  War Room, The (1993) Director
8.
  Jimi Plays Monterey (1989) Director
9.
  Shake (Otis Redding) (1989) Director
10.
  Depeche Mode 101 (1989) Director

CAST: (feature film)

2.
 Before the Nickelodeon: The Early Cinema Of Edwin S. Porter (1982) Voice ("Film As A Visual Newspaper")
VIEW THE FULL FILMOGRAPHY

Milestones close milestones

1947:
Moved to New York City after graduating from Yale
:
Worked as an advertising copy writer
:
Started Electronics Enginering, the company that developed the first computerized airline reservation system
:
Sold Electronics Engineering
:
Met experimental filmmaker Francis Thompson; was inspired to become a filmmaker
1953:
Made first film, "Daybreak Express", a five-minute portrait of NYC's now defunct Third Avenue elevated subway set to Duke Ellington's music
:
Began making industrial films
1959:
Joined Richard Leacock and others in Filmakers, an equipment-sharing film co-operative
1959:
Joined Robert Drew's Drew Associates for "Living Camera", the TV documentary series produced by Time-Life
:
Worked on ten TV documentaries, each intended to chronicle a crucial day, week, or month in the lives of both famous and unknown subjects
1960:
Co-directed (with Richard Leacock, Albert Maysles, Robert Drew, and Terence Macartney-Filgate) the landmark political documentary, "Primary", about the 1960 Democratic primary contest between candidates John Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey in Wisconsin
:
Was involved with "Adventures on the New Frontier", an ABC documentary shot in the White House during the early weeks of the Kennedy Administration
1963:
Collaborated on "Crisis", a chronicle of Robert Kennedy's successful battle with Alabama governor George Wallace over school desegregation
1963:
Left Drew Associates and formed Leacock-Pennebaker, Inc. with Richard Leacock
1967:
Produced, shot and directed the landmark feature-length pop artist portrait, "Don't Look Back", about Bob Dylan's 1965 English tour; the film's cardboard-sign sequence for Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues" is often cited as the first rock video
1969:
Co-directed (with James Desmond, Barry Feinstein, Albert Maysles, Roger Murphy, Richard Leacock and Nick Proferes) the first major rock concert film, "Monterey Pop"
:
Served as director of photography on three films directed by Norman Mailer: "Beyond the Law" (1968), "Wild 90" (1969) and "Maidstone" (1970)
1970:
With Leacock, directed "Original Cast Album: Company", a look at the grueling 15-hour marathon recording session of the landmark Stephen Sondheim stage musical
1973:
Shot the strange concert film "Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars" featuring David Bowie in his alternative persona
1979:
First collaboration with editor, producer, and future wife Chris Hegedus on "Town Bloody Hall", a record of a 1971 debate between Norman Mailer and a group of feminist writers
1980:
With Hegedus, directed "Elliott Carter", a profile of the influential modern composer
1986:
Profiled rock star Jimi Hendrix in "Jimi Plays Monterey"; not released theatrically until 1989
1989:
Made "Depeche Mode 101", a nonfiction look at the British rock band's US tour
1992:
Co-directed "Branford Marsalis: The Music Tells You", a look at the influential jazz musician
1993:
Garnered critical praise for "The War Room", a behind-the-scenes look at the 1992 US Presidential campaign of Bill Clinton
1998:
Undertook a look at the making of a stage play by following the out-of-town tryout of the comedy "Moon Over Buffalo" in the documentary "Moon Over Broadway"
2001:
Served as a producer on "Startup.com", co-directed by Chris Hegedus
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Education

Yale University: New Haven , Connecticut - 1947

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