Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Looking Back with D.A. Pennebaker: Father of Fly-on-the-Wall Cinema

The late D.A. Pennebaker was such a force in American documentary filmmaking that this week’s New York Times obituary doesn’t even mention his seminal concert film, Monterey Pop. That 1968 documentary feature, an encapsulation of the three-day concert staged at the fairgrounds in Monterey, California in June 1967, is widely considered the first and the best of the Sixties concert films. The Monterey Pop Festival featured such major (and diverse) talents as Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, Simon and Garfunkel, Otis Redding, The Who, and sitar master Ravi Shankar. The Mamas & The Papas, whose John Phillips was one of the concert’s chief organizers, helped spread a mellow West Coast vibe that ended up kicking off San Francisco’s Summer of Love. Yes, Scott McKenzie even came onstage to sing Phillips’ “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair).” Pennebaker, using several cameramen (one of whom was fellow documentary great Albert Maysles), roamed through the crowd, intimately capturing the swirl of activity: the blissed-out concertgoers as well as such performances as Jimi Hendrix’s on-stage pyrotechnics. To watch Monterey Pop is to be immersed in the event it portrays. No wonder it was selected by the Library of Congress for inclusion in the U.S. Film Registry.

Monterey Pop was hardly Pennebaker’s only film devoted to music. He was once quoted as saying ,"The very nature of film is musical.” In the course of his long career, which included over fifty directing credits between 1953 and 2016, he lensed documentaries featuring Depeche Mode, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, John Lennon, David Bowie, Chuck Barry, and Branford Marsalis. Moving from pop to Broadway, he put on film the acerbic musical star, Elaine Stritch, in a tense moment when she broke down over her inability to record her signature song from Company, ”The Ladies Who Lunch.”   

Perhaps Pennebaker’s best known film is Dont Look Now. (English majors, take note: the film’s title, borrowed from a bit of advice from Satchel Paige, is spelled without an apostrophe.) In 1965, Pennebaker (then 40) was approached by the manager of rising star Bob Dylan, and asked to make a film about the singer’s upcoming first British tour. He had barely heard of Dylan, but was game for the assignment. Using his signature fly-on-the-wall approach, Pennebaker stayed in the background, shooting everything that happened, offstage as well as on. The result was a quirky portrait of a young artist as a rebel  manfully resisting every attempt to put him in a box. Here’s what I wrote about Dont Look Back at the time of Dylan’s Nobel Prize win: “In the film, a surly Dylan makes plain his refusal to be sucked into the starmaker machinery on which the recording industry is based. Whether meeting other musicians backstage or jousting with the press, he seems guarded and occasionally hostile. Determined not to be categorized, Dylan parries every label that journalists try to pin on him. No, he’s not a folksinger. No, he’s not an angry young man.”

Pennebaker records, without comment, Dylan brushing off members of his entourage (including love-interest Joan Baez) and treating a reporter from Time with open contempt.  He also summons up images of this small, slight young man facing enormous, adoring concert crowds and then hustling away from them as they mob him after an Albert Hall performance. This dramatic look at the daily life of a pop star is today considered a masterpiece of  cinéma verité. Without overt editorializing, it records what happened. Of course, the editing process subtly shapes what the filmgoer sees, but Pennebaker makes us feel we’re getting the truth, unfiltered.


  1. Peripherally related - Woodstock Documentary on PBS aired last night. Your local station might do a repeat.

  2. Thanks, Jahn! I haven't seen the original Woodstock film since its release in 1970. I hazily recall it as peace, love, and mud. I'm fascinated by all the new material that's showing up these days. It's certainly a stroll down Memory Lane for me. I do hope you visit Movieland again soon.